AT&T Danced Their Way to the Top of the Optimization Charts — And You Can, too.

by Shawn Martin

posted on 05-10-2017

At AT&T, it’s safe to say, we don’t need any more acronyms. Just to survive in the world of AT&T, a pages-long running chart of acronyms is already necessary — and, whether necessary or not, acronyms are a nuisance. They like to hide in long strings of disorienting business jargon, alienate new team members, and trip up readers.

But, for the AT&T Center of Excellence, ABBA was different. It garnered the nostalgic inspiration so often created by ABBA’s songs — think of the youthful abandon of the “Dancing Queen,” so full of possibilities. When “Dancing Queen” hit number one on the charts, it did so in not only Sweden and Britain — where the music originated — but also faraway lands like Mexico, South Africa, and the US. People who heard it bought into the song’s vision and made it their own — just the type of buy-in we needed for our Center of Excellence.

Like the band, we used the acronym to create something uniquely our own. For us, ABBA means A/B Business Advisor, and it represents our Center of Excellence (or optimization program). And, while we admittedly make our work more fun by singing their songs, ABBA has also become a serious tool for advancing AT&T toward the delivery of exceptional customer experiences.

AT&T’s Chart-Topping Optimization Program
Here’s a peek into our program — how we built it, the challenges we faced along the way, why it works, and the key takeaways you can use to start building your brand’s internal optimization program.

Set the Stage — Design the Right Organizational Structure for You.
The average optimization team is swamped with endless testing requests from throughout the organization, so brands that are attempting to onboard the entire organization to optimization often become paralyzed with bottlenecks. To combat this, many brands try to spread the optimization resources across multiple, highly matrixed business units. What they often find is that, while the spirit of giving everyone in the organization autonomy to conduct A/B tests may be strong, it’s often unrealistic at scale. First, with each business line conducting independent tests, hundreds of tests could be going at once, hindering proper governance to avoid wasteful redundancy. Second, data discipline is likely to be low or lacking altogether. Remember that your tests are only as good as your lowest-quality data. So, when designing your optimization structure, data discipline must be a top priority.

To avoid these challenges and reap only rewards, we designed ABBA, an open-source structure. Instead of centralizing everything, ABBA centralizes the empowerment initiative in the organization. Sourced from our Center of Excellence, each group within the company — consumer, business, myAT&T sales, service, support,, DirecTV, U-Verse, B2B, and so forth — has access to designated business advisors. Once deputized as main points of contact, these advisors are responsible for educating, evangelizing, and prioritizing tests within their assigned units. For instance, if the DirecTV team wants to do something on AT&, their designated advisor is there to help drive that project within the Center of Excellence.

Rather than create a chokepoint, this model gives each business unit’s leader the freedom to swim themselves, allowing the Center to focus on strategic vision versus actual execution. The Center works only with ABBA members, and in turn, ABBA members work within their groups. The Center then manages delivery, organization-wide prioritization, and across-the-board decision-making.

Today, our Center of Excellence for A/B testing oversees as many as 50 tests — all running concurrently onsite across the organization at any given time — without risk of cross-contamination or redundancy. As a result, we’re designing better tests and obtaining better results.

Harmonize All Members — Scale to Support Your Entire Organization.
When creating your organizational structure, your goal should be to not only manage efficiency in testing, but also support the entire organization, even from a small, central management team.

For us, this was a hefty, but essential, challenge to overcome. Within sales alone, we have 50 to 70 product marketers who can submit test requests — but we would be brought to our knees if we received test requests from every marketer. To buffer against paralysis, team leads do more than take requests, prioritize them as-is, and send them to the Center of Excellence. They become consultants who guide testing to produce the most meaningful results for their teams.

For example, to avoid redundancy, leads both inform their teams when requested tests have already been conducted in other parts of the organization and present their teams with the results. They also evangelize tools we’ve developed to simplify the process, including our knowledge base of past tests and optimizations that led to wins. By making sure we’re not always starting from scratch — but rather, using and building onto what we already know — we provide valuable tools for saving money and supporting our large organization and all our internal teams in the timeliest way possible, despite (or, perhaps, due to) having a small, central managing team.

Next, as The Center of Excellence tracks and reveals meanings and best practices from trends, team leads help filter these best practices across the organization. For example, the central team had a hunch that they could surface more-definitive insights by conducting bolder tests. To test this hunch, instead of focusing on neutral tests (such as light-blue versus dark-blue website buttons) as a company, team leads helped us focus on bolder tests (like blue versus yellow or gold website buttons). The results confirmed that bolder testing offers clearer insights into what works and what doesn’t. In turn, by guiding their teams to focus on conducting bolder tests, team leads could help us create an organization-wide initiative to test toward greater wins.

Excite Your Audience — Evangelize the Program to Secure Buy-In.
To support the entire organization, we first had to build momentum with both bottom-up and top-down buy-in. To do this, we began small. When we identified a problem that one team was facing, we shared — and, therefore, evangelized — successes among other teams facing the same problem. In doing so, we convinced new teams to come on board.

From there, momentum spread. Big wins spread the quickest, so as new teams — from sales to entertainment to B2B — bought into the benefits of working under the Center of Excellence, word quickly spread through all levels of AT&T. In 2016, the Center of Excellence was presented our annual technology award from the highest levels of AT&T. Consequently, in addition to continuing to filter up through the organization, buy-in began to filter down as well.

Today, we’re building a deep base of tests to allow departments throughout the company to use stored information. Departments have shared their data, tests have spanned a wide range of segments — and cohesively, they’ve created a seamless, organization-wide A/B platform.

Top the Charts — Start Small to Create Big Wins.
Once we experienced buy-in across AT&T, Dave Bilbrough, enterprise platform architect at Adobe, tested our Center of Excellence model across numerous industries and companies of all sizes — and, it worked!

Starting small, and with Dave’s guidance, a large retail bank operating in the southeastern US began implementing a similar model in their car-insurance division. After quickly experiencing double-digit boosts in conversions, they expanded the program to other parts of the bank. And, guess what — they experienced equally powerful wins in other business units as well, with double-digit boosts in conversions and delighted customers in its wake.

We Want Our Story to Help You.
In speaking of the sensation that was the “Dancing Queen,” The Guardian’s Tim Jonze wrote, “Pete Waterman, who knows a thing or two about writing a hit, believes it exemplifies how the best Swedish artists are able to soak up popular trends and regurgitate them as something fresh.”

So, here is AT&T’s challenge for you: Don’t just emulate our story — instead, create something fresh, something better. Start with what inspires your team. For us, it was ABBA songs; for you, it may be zombies or — one of my personal favorites — Beetlejuice. Then, create strategic networks of small teams to avoid the bottlenecks often associated with large centralized teams. If your team is already small, you’re better positioned to create wins from the very beginning. On the other hand, if you’re a large team, develop a system to scale your efforts so you can both support and filter learned best practices throughout your entire organization. Further, don’t be afraid to start small, with one or two internal teams, and build momentum along the way. And, don’t be shy about passionately tracking and communicating wins at every opportunity and within every level of your organization.

Topics: Personalization

Products: Target