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A/B Testing Goes Mainstream: Used By Stores, Campaigns, Even Schools


If you spend any time at all online, you are the subject of experiments - maybe hundreds of experiments, even thousands of little experiments called A/B tests. Steve Henn of NPR's Planet Money team reports these experiments are moving into the physical world.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: In an A/B test, a Web designer creates two nearly identical websites, version A and a version B. He or she then shows version A to half the people who come to the website and version B to the other half. Jon Mensing tests headlines this way for BuzzFeed.

So can you give me examples of different headlines that you've tested? Like, headline A versus headline B?

JON MENSING: This one's got three. This one is, "33 Ways To Build The Ultimate Snow Fort," "33 Ways To Build The Best Snow Fort Ever" and "33 Ways To Build A Snow Fort You'll Want To Move Into."

HENN: As traffic pours in, Jon can see which version is getting the most clicks for his story, and he had me try to guess which it was.

I'm guessing version B.

MENSING: So your guess was, "33 Ways To Build The Best Snow Fort Ever," but the winner was actually the third one, "33 Ways To Build A Snow Fort You'll Want To Move Into," which was about twice as good as the second version.

HENN: As my guess?

MENSING: Yes, it was.

HENN: That's discouraging. OK, next.

The difference between a good headline a bad headline means tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of more readers and, eventually, dollars, and A/B testing is possible because every click, every move of the mouse, is tracked. And now brick and mortar stores are trying to do this too. A couple weeks ago, I visited this little shoe store in Chicago called BucketFeet.

LAURA SUH: The first thing I'll say is that we call our stores studios.

HENN: Laura Suh manages these studios or stores, and she is really into data. Recently, she just installed this system to let her run A/B tests in the store.

SUH: We have six cameras - two in the front, two in the middle, two in the back that are...

HENN: OK, I see the two up there. There's one right in the center of the store.

SUH: There's actually three in the front. So the one right up front in the center measures incoming traffic.

HENN: And Laura is running A/B tests all the time. If she wants to know should kids' shoes go in the front or the back, she tests it and then she watches to see how people respond. She shows me all this data, even videos.

Can you describe what we're seeing now?

SUH: Yeah. So we just saw a customer walk up. Looks like she glanced at kind of the artist's description, maybe touched one of the magnets and then kind of wandered away.

HENN: On the screen, the computer automatically draws circles around each person and tracks their movements, logs them into a spreadsheet. It even records how long they linger in front of displays.

When you were talking about online tracking, you said sometimes it verges on...

SUH: (Laughter).

HENN: ...Creepy. Do you ever feel that way about this?

SUH: This is very creepy. I think that's part of my hesitation in watching a lot of these videos. But, you know, it's - if you have a specific question to answer, it's very useful information.

HENN: And this isn't just useful for selling shoes or testing headlines. A/B tests shape campaigns, classroom lesson plans. Just about anywhere a company can make a small change and then watch to see how we respond, A/B testing is likely to pop up soon. Steve Henn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.
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