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What it feels like to write a CRO book

An interview with published author, Johann van Tonder.

Many people dream of publishing a book, and Johann van Tonder is no exception. In January 2017, his dream becomes reality, when E-Commerce Website Optimization hits the shelves as the first how-to business book specifically for retail websites. 

As Johann and his co-author Dan Croxen-John prepare to crack open the Champagne, we asked him to reflect on the labours of the last two years, and find out what writing the book has meant to him.

In this revealing and deeply personal interview, Johann lays bare the highs, the lows, the sacrifices and the rewards of his long journey from bright idea to published book. 

What did it mean to you to write this book?

Clearly I invested a lot of time into it. There were moments I wondered whether it was worth sacrificing precious family time, evenings and weekends. I was partly driven by the fact that there was nothing like this out there and that I would have used a book exactly like this when I started out.

What did you learn through the process of writing the book?

I’ve grown tremendously. I was forced to challenge my thinking and confront my biases multiple times. Processes are at the heart of CRO and I found myself refining those processes as a result of writing the book; some have been completely changed and new ways have been introduced. It’s said that you become an expert after doing something for 10,000 hours. I’m way past that mark, and I feel the process of writing the book has added a strange dimension to that so-called ‘expertise’. Writing the book challenged much of the knowledge acquired over the years and forced me to acknowledge a) how much more there is to learn and b) how much there may be to unlearn.

What have you enjoyed most about the whole process?

In a word, discovery.  It’s been a joy to discover new ideas and new ways of doing things. I’ve learned so much on so many levels; about myself, the writing process itself, of course, but also definitely my subject area. Almost every statement I wrote was challenged at some point by someone, and so had to be backed up. Countless hours went into research, because it was important to not just be our own thoughts. The content has depth.

How did you feel about sharing your knowledge?

Many people tried to warn us that giving away our knowledge could put us out of business. I wasn’t put off by that at all. As a former university lecturer, sharing knowledge is something I love and comes naturally. I see it as an enormous responsibility too and treat it with respect.

It’s also the reason why I wasn’t completely comfortable simply offering my own ideas. Many books in this arena do that, giving an unapologetic account of the author’s way of doing things. But I wanted this to be more considered. Before I wrote a single word, I had read every book on CRO that I could find; in fact there probably isn’t one that I didn’t read, as well as several books in related disciplines such as UX, copywriting and psychology, volumes of blogs and a long list of peer-reviewed journal articles.

How did you and Dan find the time to write the book?

It wasn’t easy. Imagine the discipline required to fill 260 blank pages with content good enough to pay money for, while juggling business, clients, projects and family. To be clear, we didn’t have less work to do. It was pretty much business as usual. I simply had to find the time somewhere. I had to tap inspiration from depths that were previously unknown to me. That has been enormously empowering. The rigour of the publishing process that comes with working with Kogan Page also helped in the sense that we were accountable to someone, and there was a strict schedule to stick to.

What chapter(s) do you think will be most beneficial to readers and why?

Impossible to say. It’s such a mix, covering not only the entire optimisation process but also other topics like merchandising analytics, personalisation and multi-lingual. It depends on the reader, the context of their business and where they are in the process. The two chapters that deal with research methodology will let you hit the ground running even if you’ve never done any of this before.

Thinking about the wider context, what big changes have you seen in 2016?

For several months in 2016 I the only changes I saw were our editor’s suggestions for the manuscript. When I came up to breathe, Brexit had happened and Trump had become President Elect. It sounds far removed from CRO, but it affects economies, buying power of your currency, consumer sentiment and business confidence. Many of my conversations with clients this year have referenced these and other geo-political events. In some respects we’ve had to place our consulting in that context. CRO is not just moving things around on a webpage; it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

What predictions do you have for CRO in 2017?

Google Optimize is coming out of beta in 2017. The introduction of this free split testing tool, closely integrated with the popular Google Analytics, has the ability to shake up the space. That’s exciting.

Where can we buy the book from?

E-commerce Website Optimization written by Johann van Tonder and Dan Croxen-John will be available from all good book sellers from 3 January 2017 and is available to pre-order on Amazon now.


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