CTA Conference 2017 Smoke-DAta-Every-Day

Stop Blowing Smoke Up Your … & Other CTA Conference Takeaways

He represented Unbounce and his talk was the final CTA Conference act. Michael Aagaard, Senior Conversion Optimizer at Unbounce, strode onto the stage knowing his performance had to be good.

His goal? Reduce digital marketing smokescreens.

He steered the audience along an eighteenth century Thames river with a story.

This movement was natural to me because I couldn’t shake the uncanny resemblance of Aagaard to Ragnar Lothbrok of the TV show “Vikings.” And, like, Aagaard, Lothbrok too brought his followers to England a long time ago. Luckily for the audience, Michael’s expedition wasn’t as bloody as Ragnar’s.


See the similarity?

Aagaard soon pulled out his prop, a set of bellows, and made us aware of similar sets hanging all along the river.

These, he revealed, blew tobacco smoke up willing medical patients’ rectums. Aagaard explained why: first, tobacco smoke was thought to have healing properties. Second, a drowned man was said to have been brought back to life by such a penetrating procedure.

Physicians took this anecdotal evidence as law. The procedure began butting into many eighteenth century patients’ lives.

Sure looks fun doesn’t it?

tobacco enema CTACONF2017

Why did Aagaard tell us a story about tobacco smoke enemas? Because at least half of the speakers during the conference told us to tell more and better stories.

So why not tell this story about tail ends at the tail end of the conference?

The story worked to loosen up the audience, but also as a parable for marketers’ attractions to trends that seem to work. Aagaard hammered the scientific term, “confirmation bias,” into our heads (perhaps the talk was a bit violent). In short, we:

  • Search for & recall information in ways that confirm our existing beliefs, hypotheses & expectations
  • Accept evidence we agree with at face value
  • Dismiss information we don’t agree with

Despite his animation and zealous usage of stage space, Aagard’s attempts to combat confirmation bias couldn’t echo enough.

No More Smoke & Mirrors:

Like Oli Gardner before him, Marketing & Conversion Optimization Expert at Unbounce, Aagaard ridiculed the un-scientific method of marketing tests, data analysis, and data reporting.

Both Unbounce seniors encouraged the audience to move their figurative sets of bellows away from their butts.

Instead, use logic, reason, and outsider insight rather than smoke and mirrors to interpret data.

Use the scientific approach:

Scientific Testing Digital Marketing Aagard

Aagaard’s story prompts the question: How much smoke are you blowing up your marketing team’s … ? This question, I think, threads the variety of conference presentations together.

The Vancouver CTA Conference Takeaways (More than just free swag)

1. The Smoke in the Machine:


2. No Smoking in the Office, But Definitely More Women


3. Your Storytelling Blows:


4. Smoke Data Every Day


5. Your Customers Do Actually Know What They Want (UGC)


Unbounce CTA Conf 2017 Haul

Our physical takeaways

1. The Smoke in the Machine:


Carl Schmidt, CTO at Unbounce, opened the conference with artificial intelligence. He delivered it straight to our event apps.

Marketer vs. Machine:

We had one mission: beat the machine. Could we determine whether landing pages would convert well better than an AI?

We failed.

The AI guessed correctly 80% of the time, scanning only copy. The best of us crept towards 57% and the average leveled out at a coin flip or 50%. While the skeptical might accuse Unbounce of a rigged sample size, the experiment proves to the rest of us how well AI might do our jobs.

This may prove to be the hardest set of bellows to detach as we come to terms with conceding some of our capabilities to machines. But, optimistically, as John F. Kennedy said,

“If men have the talent to invent new machines that put men out of work, they have the talent to put those men back to work”

2. No Smoking in the Office, But Definitely More Women


The Women of Unbounce CTA Conf 17

Best, Smith, DiTomaso, Harrison, Suellentrop, Patch, Otting, Hall, Hubley, Dunford from top left to bottom right

These ten women proved to conference goers that women can kick … on stage.

Unbounce championed equality in the workforce by insuring equality on stage. An even split of women and men spoke at the conference. This smoke’s been blowing up men’s bottoms for a long time. Unbounce has vowed to bring equality to the forefront of workplace norms.

The hashtag #presentHER framed CTA Conference 2017. Starting from a conversation on Twitter, #presentHER soon became the mandate for Unbounce’s 2017’s conference.

The gloves-off blog post titled “‘There Aren’t Enough Qualified Women Speakers’ and Other Garbage Excuses for Why Your Marketing Event Isn’t Gender Diverse” heralded the conference mandate.

3. Your Storytelling Blows:


Kindra Hall, strategic storytelling advocate, introduced the topic of narrative to the CTA conference attendees. She set the framework for the prevalent theme. This framework was the storytelling structure made applicable for marketers:

  1. What was
  2. What happened
  3. What’s now

Hall encouraged the audience to use this structure, alongside the “co-creative” process of storytelling, to draw stories out of clients and customers. Ask about nouns, people, places, objects rather than feelings advised Hall.

Whatever story marketers believe they are telling needs to ground itself on reality. And not on FABs or headlines or even CTAs.


The annual CTA conference showcased some of the best in the SEO business who conveniently tied SEO to Unbounce’s forte, CRO.

Scott Stratten, Wil Reynolds, Allison Otting, Rand Fishkin, and Tyler Farnsworth all added to the idea of refocusing marketing efforts to answer real people’s questions.

Solve people’s problems rather than dazzle, confuse, or even shame them.

Presenters from Unbounce CTA Conference 17

Stratten, Reynolds, Fishkin, Farnsworth from left to right.

Stratten and Farnsworth presented ideas of disclosure and honesty. The hit-or-miss emerging arena of influencer marketing offered plenty of material. Otting critiqued stock photography and unrepresentative images for content offerings.

Don’t cheapen your brand or muddle your messaging with generic imagery.


Fishkin and Reynolds called for smarter SEO. Investigate people’s search paths to create answers and solution.

“Guidance queries” such as “who is, what is, where is” were the bread and butter of what Reynolds and Fishkin both alluded to as CRO for SEO.

A tool like infinitesuggest can help you understand how people modify their queries to get closer to their desired answers.

Finally, you must ask yourself whether your website baits or bolsters its visitors with information.

Solution Stories:

Amy Harrison followed through on Reynolds and Fishkin’s frustrations. She strove to get us to find out where people lose understanding or interest in copy. Fix this disconnect by learning more about the problems people want solved. Recognize these problems, include them in your copy, and wow your visitors.

Harrison advised using “symptoms” in ad copy to “predict” people’s problems/risks. She also sided with Hall in presenting your brand’s solution as a story that the customer fits into.

Harrison customer story solution CTAConf


Claire Suellentrop gave us a simple marketing storytelling formula: Jobs to Be Done (JTBD).

She compacted the idea into every marketer’s favorite thing, an acronym. And, maybe even better than the acronym, was the sentiment that now it’s your customer’s “job” to be marketed to.

JTBD Suellentrop CTAConf2017

Be careful, though. Jessica Best taught us that email subject lines that aren’t too demanding tend to perform better.

Asking someone to single-handedly help end world hunger is a bit much. Instead, asking to help “us” end world hunger is much more inviting.

Stray but a little and your marketing story will fail. Authenticity relies on facts rather than opinions or pithy feelings and statements.

Look at your customers’ lives; the objects, the people, the real problems.

Look at your own business’s life and try to realize where the connection between you and the customer is authentic so that you can avoid the point where it’s fluff and snake oil.

4. Smoke Data Every Day



Check out Google Data Studio. If you’re into sexy number tools, Dana DiTomaso prescribes this newly released Google software.

With it you can integrate data from all your channels and do fancy math tricks. Dazzle your team and customers with the extra features other reporting tools like excel or sheets might not have.

And you can create dashboards. Yes, I really said it, dashboards.

Acronyms and dashboards make digital marketing work. Or at least make digital marketers seem smart. But be careful not to be vain in your dashboard-ing.

Vanity Metrics

As Ezra Pound says in “Canto LXXXI,” marketers must learn to “Pull down thy vanity.”

Scott Stratten and Dana DiTomaso lambasted “vanity metrics.” Metrics that don’t mean anything like reach on Facebook or Twitter or flat sessions in Google Analytics fluff the eyes.

These metrics make your reporting toxic.

Stratten even compared these metrics to the mythic reach around.

Pull down thy vanity metrics.

“Integrity is not a renewable resource” offers Stratten. Commenting on the tonedeaf PR moments of brands, Stratten’s words also work on any marketing medium.

Your eyes must be critical, but, as Aagaard pointed out, your colleagues eyes must be critical too. Surround yourself with integrity. Because once it starts going, it goes fast (see sub-prime mortgage proponents).

Smoke Tests

Dane CTA Conference 2017 Unbounce

But what if you have no data to be honest about? Well, Jonathan Dane gave us the idea of Smoke Tests.

Quite on-pun, Dane urged marketers to offer something before it exists.

Whether this strategy involves integrity is up to your business, but it’s a good way to gather interest data and guarantee the product/feature/content you put hours into has an ROI.

Keeping it honest would involve letting those who sign-up know you’re gathering interest rather than guaranteeing a release.

Smoke test your offerings. And if you don’t end up producing, you just generated a small prospect list. It’s a win/win.

5. Your Customers Do Actually Know What They Want (UGC)


We’ve got storytelling and integrity. Now we get to UGC or User Generated Content to steal our customers’ stories and use them to sell to more customers.

Maybe there’s a disconnect, but we’re only marketers.

Besides, it’s not as bad as it sounds. In fact, it’s probably the best way to write copy and find the “symptoms” that Amy Harrison was talking about.

Klettke CTAConf 2017

When writing copy we need the anxieties and pain points of customers. What better to look at than what customers actually say? Joel Klettke points us towards:

  • Search engine parameters on competitors sites
  • Amazon related product reviews
  • Live-chat on-site (powerful way to find common pain points)

And then you can also dump all the reviews you’ve gathered into a word-cloud. Use the cloud to find common keywords and phrases.

These commonalities might be perfect for communicating your brand to new customers.

Save these bad boys. Klettke gave us question templates to create our own valuable interviews and surveys:

  1. What was going on in your business that sent you looking for a solution?
  2. What else did you try, and what didn’t you love about it?
  3. What almost kept you from buying from us?
  4. What made you confident enough to give us a try?
  5. What made _____ the best solution for you?
  6. When evaluating _____ what was most important to you?
  7. What can you do now, or do better, than you could do before?
  8. Give me an example of when _____ made a difference to you

Similarly, Aagaard offered these questions for your sales team:

  1. What is the main problem evaluators are trying to solve with our product/offer?
  2. Based on your experience from talking to evaluators, what is the decision-making process you
    typically see (i.e. which steps are involved and how many people/departments?)
  3. In this process, are there any “aha-moments” that bring evaluators closer to either “Yes” or “No”?
  4. What are the top 3 question you get from evaluators?
  5. At what point do they realize whether our product/offer is the right/wrong fit for them?
  6. Are there any major deterrents?
  7. Are there any major drivers?
  8. The elevator pitch – if you only had 30 seconds to pitch our product/offer, what would you say?

Further, use these questions with a logic map. Customize prompts and order to get the most valuable/helpful information from your customers.

Klettke advocated for either UberConference or TypeForm as survey/interview tools.

From our own experience at Vantage, user generated content can boost the performance of paid search account.

So, make sure you’re using your customer’s feedback as a symbol of trust and insight for new visitors. Bonus points if you use real user generated content (remember integrity).

“Don’t market crap” said April Dunford about having integrity. But if you have to market it, put it in the fertilizer aisle where customers can actually use it.

Till Next Year’s CTA Conference

Vantage CTA Conference Recap

So, if you market crap or your marketing is crap, you should have got tickets for CTA Conference 2017. But, luckily, we attended it too.

You can ask us about what you might be able to do to get that set of bellows out of your marketing nether region via the link below.

You can also read last year’s recap to get a sense of how the industry’s main topics shift over a year.

As always, we look forward to next year’s CTA Conference by Unbounce.

So, if you need help stopping the torrent of smoke being blown from your … feel free to get in touch with the Vantage team.