CRO is like poker

Kyle Hearnshaw

Conversion rate optimization (CRO) and poker have a lot of similarities, and it’s more than just the opportunity to either make or lose a lot of money.


Anyone can play

Anyone can take a seat at a poker table and play a few hands. The game is relatively easy to pick up and there really isn’t any prerequisite knowledge needed apart from knowing how a deck of cards works.

The same can be said of CRO. There are plenty of tools out there that will allow you to start doing the basics of CRO in a couple of hours. Your free Google Analytics account can give you a pretty good understanding of where people are abandoning your site. Sign up for an Optimizely account and you can start running your first A/B tests as soon as you add the code to your pages.

The problem is, because it’s so easy to start doing something that feels like CRO, many companies think they’re doing CRO already so don’t seek help to do it better. Everyone starts playing with the assumption that they will win after all. But only the players willing to invest adequate time and even money into getting better will make consistent returns in the long run. That might mean reading up on the theory, looking at what others have done to be successful, or even getting professional help.  

Anyone can win the odd hand

The reason people get addicted to poker is that from time to time they probably will win a big hand and make some money. The problem is that over the long run the relatively infrequent big wins will be cancelled out by the all-too-frequent losses.

The same is true of CRO. Anyone can run a test and it’s within the realms of possibility that you might just get a winner too, maybe even a big one at that. We know from experience that small changes to sites can have big impact so you certainly can stumble upon these impactful changes.

If you want to be making a sustained impact on your conversion rate over time though, you’ll need a CRO strategy in place that can deliver these big wins on a regular basis.

Over time, a data-driven strategy will deliver better results

In poker a beginner’s luck will run out. It doesn’t matter too much what happens hand to hand, it matters what happens over the long-run – over hundreds of hands. A successful poker player adopts strategies that give them statistically better odds of winning. Over time, this statistical advantage is what means they are still there at the final table, with the biggest stack of chips. They may throw a few big plays here and there, but the majority of play is about being smart and using the data available to make good decisions consistently.

In CRO each split-test we run is like a hand of poker for the poker player. Being successful at CRO is not necessarily about getting a big uplift in one test, nor is it about being successful with every test you run. Being successful at CRO is about using the data you have available to you to devise testing strategies that deliver continuous improvement over time. There may be the odd test along the road that does deliver a 20, 30, 40% uplift in conversion rate.

The mark of a good CRO professional, however, is not getting that 40% winner, it’s what they do after that 40% winner to iterate on it and go further. It’s how they learn and adapt when a test doesn’t deliver an uplift to turn the data from that losing hand into a winning hand next time.

Finally, you play your opponent, not the cards

This is a well known mantra of poker and it stems from the fact that you have little control over what cards you’re dealt so can’t rely on good cards to win hands. Instead, by gathering data on your opponent such as their play style – how they play hands in which they win and how they play hands in which they lose for example – you can devise strategies to beat them no matter what hand you’ve been dealt.

This is true in CRO, although I wouldn’t suggest that you think of your potential customers as your opponents necessarily.

You might not have much control over the hand you’re dealt in terms of the product you’re selling or the service you’re offering. What you can control is how you use what you’ve been dealt, and it’s essential to understand how your visitors think so that you can decide how best to influence them using what you have. Likewise, there is only so much that web analytics data can tell you about why visitors are abandoning your checkout. You need to understand the motivations and thought processes of visitors at each stage of your funnel to know how to make them take the action you want.

CRO and poker have the same appeal. The simplicity of the objective – getting people to buy or getting people to fold. The potential for great returns if you’re successful. The thrill of getting that big uplift in a test or winning that big hand. Both CRO and poker though aren’t easy, and both need a lot of time and effort invested to do well.

There are a lot more unsuccessful poker players than successful ones as a result, and I think the same is probably true in CRO. Hopefully this post has given you a good idea of what can makes the difference.

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