August 6th, 2012 | 5 MIN READ

Conversion Rate Optimization: Rethinking the HIPPO

Written by Linda Bustos

Linda is an ecommerce industry analyst and consultant specializing in conversion optimization and digital transformation.

If you've been reading marketing and analytics blogs, you've likely encountered the acronym HiPPO (including our own blog). This affectionate term describes either the "Higest Paid Person's Opinion" or the "Higest Paid Person in the Organization."

The term is typically used in context of the challenge of winning support for site testing or mobile development from higher-ups, crucial in getting these initiatives off the ground. In many organizations, HiPPOs are unwilling to slaughter sacred cows, even when data supports it, potentially leaving dollars on the table.

But the HiPPO should not be characterized as a Homer Simpson with a corner office, whose ignorance to testing / mobile / social / insert-shiny-object-here is holding everything back.

The HiPPO Identity

Without executive support, hands are tied (or at least greatly restricted) from testing impactful changes. Office politics and organizational structure can be a hindrance. Business culture can be risk-averse. Resources may be so constrained that management does not want to make room for testing.

Certainly, in some companies, HiPPOs simply do not see the value of testing and need persuasive education. But the HiPPO is not a dunce, and should not be approached as one.

The HiPPO Supremacy

One of the reasons the HiPPO is highly paid is it's his or her responsibility to make a judgement call on proposed actions. Yes, to use "gut feel" to override "data-driven" proposals that look good on paper but may not work for the business. Data shouldn't be blindly followed just because it's data as much as it's dangerous to follow gut feel. Decision making requires a combination of both.

Kevin Hillstrom, president of MineThatData comments on his blog:

As an analyst/manager, from 1988 - 1997, I railed against the concept of "The HiPPO". I couldn't believe how decisions were actually made. I couldn't believe how the departments that I worked in were underfunded while VP positions were being added in large quantities. I felt frustrated that my data-driven ideas, all seemingly iron-clad and backed up with thousands of pages of tables and charts representing actual customer behavior, were not adopted.

As a Vice President, from 2001 - 2007, I became "The HiPPO". I hosted hundreds/thousands of meetings, meetings where data was presented, data that I either didn't believe was accurate, or had a philosophical difference of opinion with the presenter of information, leading me to decide something contrary to what the data suggested.

You have to be a VP/SVP/EVP/President/CEO to understand why data-driven arguments are ignored.

And you have to be an Analyst/Manager to understand how frustrating it is to not be listened to.

The HiPPO isn't always right, but analysts and managers that can respect and empathize with higher-ups will experience less frustration. An understanding that some ideas are not kiboshed because the CEO doesn't have a clue helps.

Analysts also need to understand their own interpretation of data may not be correct. Often times data is gathered to support an underlying bias, "I want to do this, so I'll find data to support my goal." Or, data may support action that is not in the long term interest of the company, or is not aligned with the vision, mission or market.

The HiPPO Ultimatum

Executives are often caught between a rock and a hard place, faced with job loss if sales and profit targets are not hit. This can make an executive understandably conservative with risk-taking that can impact the numbers, even when the exec sees value in testing. The exec's neck is on the line, not the analyst.

Says Hillstrom: "The Analyst/Manager simply needs to understand that the risk/reward relationship is much riskier to the Executive than it is to the Analyst/Manager ... this isn't right/wrong, it 'just is'."

The HiPPO Legacy

Like legacy software and systems, some corporate cultures are outdated and may remain in use though newer tools are in place in the same organization. Sometimes a cultural revolution is a good thing. The HiPPO is not always right, and may not be open to embracing things that can move the organization forward.

An understanding of where the HiPPO is coming from is the first step towards building a bridge. This helps your approach -- how you present information, what pain points to hit, what data to gather, and what to prioritize.

To understand the HiPPO, learn what keeps him or her up at night. What is your HiPPO responsible for? Who is he accountable to? What is her level of understanding of new technologies?

Then, gather data that will persuade the HiPPO. Says Avinash Kaushik, "Senior Managers are biased towards themselves, but they bow to customer data and competitive opportunities."

On his blog, Avinash suggests 6 strategies you can use to gather case, customer and competitive ammo:

1. Implement an experimentation and testing program
2. Capture the voice of the customer through surveys, remote usability, etc.
3. Benchmark against your competition
4. Use competitive intelligence
5. Hijack a "friendly" website (optimize a friend or co-worker's side project site and use as a case)
6. Call Avinash or other industry expert who can lend objective support

For fleshed out details of these strategies, check out the entire post.

To foster change, you need to build a bridge. Says Hillstrom:

How many times have you heard somebody say "that's not how we do things around here?" Sometimes, the Analyst/Manger doesn't have the experience to "build a bridge" between the past and the future ... the Analyst/Manager simply blurts out a data-driven strategy that has risk associated with it, and is uncomfortable to the Executive.

Think about your mobile phone ... your phone was the end result of a chain of events over two decades that allowed you to feel comfortable purchasing something via m-commerce. Take your Android phone and introduce it to somebody in 1992, and you'd cause that individual to freak out!! A "bridge" was built between land lines and cell phones, between old-school commerce and e-commerce and e-mail and m-commerce, enabling you to see the future and feel comfortable. An Analyst/Manager is well served to build a bridge between "the way we've always done things" and "the future".

Changing your culture requires humility, solid data, great communication and patience.

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