CRO Programme: In-house, Agency or Freelance?

This blog idea came to me after a client of mine expressed in no uncertain terms that he did not want to bring my CRO skills in-house. Now that may seem like he wasn’t interested in my services for his CRO programme at all, but in fact he had some very positive reasons for why he didn’t want me to become an employee; that got me to thinking about the pros and cons of each of the different approaches. And as a ex-in-house optimiser, an ex-salaried-consultant and now a freelance consultant, I feel like I should be able to give a pretty reasoned perspective on this one!

CRO Programme: In-house

Pros: Available in person, deep business knowledge, strong cross-functional connections

Some clear benefits here, with “availability in person” being the key one for me; if an optimisation effort is part of a larger project in which the optimiser needs to be involved with the coordination of work across multiple departments/teams, this makes the in-house option invaluable. I actually encountered a situation similar to this when talking to a prospective client recently and when it became clear that the role required a high level of coordination across business functions, I was quick to point out that this probably made me unsuitable for the role. In addition, a deep knowledge of the profitability levers for a business can also be a benefit of an in-house optimiser, particularly if those levers are substantially complex. Gaining a genuine appreciation of how a business makes money can be achieved by an external party for many, or even the majority of, businesses, but a certain depth of complexity can result in difficulties if not handled in-house.

Cons: In-demand skill-set, single business focus, site “tunnel vision”.

The cons for in-house are probably just as obvious as the benefits when it comes to experience being focused solely on one business/industry and the “tunnel vision” that all optimisers can suffer from when they become overly familiar with a site. The one that I hadn’t so much considered before (until my client mentioned it to me!) was the demand for the skill-set of an optimiser; this was something I wrote about some time ago (see 5 Essential Skills for Conversion Rate Optimisation (and 2 “Nice-to-Haves”) ) but I hadn’t thought about it from the client-side perspective. From talking to my client, his rationale that was if he secured me as a permanent employee, he would end up losing my skill-set to other parts of the business who required an individual so used to bridging technical and non-technical areas. The combination of creativity, data analysis and web-language skills that come with every good optimiser would be something that others would want to utilise and as such, the CRO work that I would’ve been hired for would’ve been sidelined.

CRO Programme: Agency

Pros: Flexible resource, broad cross-industry experience, pure CRO focus

A large number of businesses now operate on a hybrid model of both in-house and agency/vendor resources for CRO. This usually stems from wanting a mixture of specific CRO experience across multiple clients, and having a resource that is solely dedicated to CRO. In addition, the resource tends to be more flexible than salaried employees, meaning that it can wax and wane with the business’ needs. On top of that, many businesses are utilising the managed service of their CRO vendor, meaning that they also benefit from a direct line into the product development and platform operations teams of that vendor. This can be hugely beneficial for solving platform-level technical issues, and for helping to steer the product roadmap.

Cons: Little control over account team, opaque pricing, opaque scheduling

From working on the agency/vendor side for some years, I have seen all of these cons raised by both clients and agency employees alike. Working with any external party is going to result in a certain amount of opacity and every (reasonable) client expects that, but when agency employees are not empowered to justify a lengthy delivery period or to explain the cost of the work, this causes real relationship issues. Despite that, I would suggest that a lack of control over who actually works on the account is probably the biggest con here. Agency staff will come and go, and the exceptional talents are usually the first to move on to further their careers which makes it all the tougher on clients.

CRO Programme: Freelancer

Pros: Dedicated & (generally!) successful individual, broad cross-industry experience, pure CRO focus

The pros for a freelance CRO consultant are not dissimilar to those of an agency set-up. A client will get someone who is focused on CRO as their main workstream and that freelancer will almost certainly have a broad experience of CRO (and digital in general) across a number of different industries. The biggest stand-out difference however is likely to be the level of success that that individual has achieved with their clients. To move into a freelance role in an industry dominated by agencies and vendors, either this individual took enormous risks, or they have been very successful in building a CRO programme and a relationship with clients in the past and know they can do it. Their commitment to success is also likely to be greater than the other options, as their personal reward for a new or extended contract will be significantly higher.

Cons: Single point of failure, lack of oversight, business buy-in

The clearest con of the freelancer is the lack of back-up; should that freelancer become ill or go on holiday, there is unlikely to be anyone to step in to cover them. Equally, given that they are a “lone wolf”, if their consultancy is ineffective, the business has no option to change consultant and will just have to ride it out until the end of the contract. In the same vein, freelance consultants have no oversight from a business hierarchy, and therefore any bad habits or practices will go unnoticed and uncorrected. A business hiring a freelancer for this sort of work must have an inherent trust in that individual’s ability to deliver on promises. And that trust must be there in order to go through the effort of championing that person to senior stakeholders internally to approve the hire.

So What’s the Answer?

As with so many questions, it really depends on the status of the CRO programme. All successful programmes need to have a strong contact on the client-side, but they don’t necessarily need to be the foremost expert in optimisation to help deliver success. The hybrid model of agency & in-house is by far the most prevalent in the market at present, and will likely continue to be so, despite some of the cons mentioned above. Agencies/vendors currently monopolise the majority of CRO talent, and in part this is due to most CRO programmes requiring a level of management that does not constitute 37.5 hours a week. They also allow a total focus on CRO in most cases, something that client-side roles are often unable to provide. The freelance route is by far the least common, and despite my best efforts as a freelance CRO consultant(!), I highly doubt that is going to change. The level of trust required to put something like this in a freelancer’s hands is definitely a barrier to entry, and generally stems from either a strong recommendation by a trusted colleague or friend, or a previous working relationship in which aptitude and ability has already been proven.

So if you’re faced with this very question now, don’t discount any of the options. All have their merits and drawbacks, so don’t be afraid to try to them all to find the one that fits for your CRO programme.

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