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Server-side testing may be hard, but the cross-channel impact is worth it

(Image credit: Image Credit: Startup Stock Photos / Pixabay)

The longstanding client-side vs. server-side testing debate often concentrates on the question of convenience: which is easiest to integrate and test with?

By this metric, the contest isn’t even remotely close. Client-side testing, in which client-side JavaScript code renders tests directly on the user’s browser, beats server-side testing by leaps and bounds on the easiness scale.

It’s true: the server-side approach is much more involved and requires planning and oversight from Product and R&D teams to work well. The level of technical analysis is much greater. Rather than injecting a few lines of code here and there, top guns in R&D now need to look at the whole tech stack a company uses to pinpoint where and how testing and personalisation fit into the bigger picture. Access to a robust team of developers isn’t enough. Leaders in the R&D organisation must now have a clear understanding of the business goals and the marketer’s wish for agility and independence; enabling this is fully in their hands.

Despite the learning curve, though, server-side testing can actually benefit both developers and marketers when done right. Interestingly enough, the first and foremost factor in doing it right is not a matter of technology at all. It is about establishing trust within the organisation to enable the heavy collaboration necessary to succeed.

Given the effort, you’d be right in wondering whether it’s worth it or if now is the right time. But when looking at the competitive landscape, adopting advanced solutions that offer holistic, cross-channel experiences is not a luxury anymore. Doing so is quickly becoming a must if you wish to continue to effectively engage your audience (which is really composed of varied heterogeneous groups) and meet your KPIs.

Assuming your company’s goals are to secure new customers, deepen existing relationships, and extract as much value as possible from the multiple platforms you’ve already invested in, then convenience (a.k.a. the comfort zone) should take a backseat as the paramount concern. With server-side testing, the wider range of capabilities, deeper insights, and overall sophistication compensate for what the method lacks in ease and convenience.

Server side’s key drivers

As eCommerce retailers, financial brands, QSRs, and organisations across many other industries seek out cutting-edge technologies for enhancing engagement, the role of Product and R&D teams in the organisation is evolving, which I can personally attest to from numerous conversations held with our customers and prospects. In many cases, the role of these teams in the selling process has traditionally been to check a box, verifying that a solution offered by a vendor merely functions properly – that it’s something they can live with. Now, however, the third-party products they choose should be tools they don’t want to live without. These should be tools with which they can clearly see how core business objectives can be better achieved – with their crucial participation.

I cannot overestimate the importance of getting both Product and R&D teams on board in this journey. They must feel ownership in reaching the goals of the business and view themselves as enablers. Marketers, on their end, should recognise them as true partners.

When considering the modern tech stacks which organisations are now adopting, we are starting to see a growing number of companies migrating away from traditional CMS and eCommerce platforms towards headless solutions. These solutions are very flexible in managing content and complex, nested layouts, but they leave all visual rendering to the customer. Companies utilising headless CMS’s are usually tech-savvy organisations that have made a conscious choice to invest heavily in taking control of the user experience, across all form factors they support.

Since developers are now required to invest heavily in the UX across multiple platforms (instead of a CMS doing this for them - with all its limitations and gotchas), they need to have as much logic as possible that can be shared and re-used between all mediums. This is typically achieved by making the effort to build a powerful centralised code layer, which provides content and services to all types of client devices. Among the capabilities best implemented centrally, there is one element that would really pay off: built-in support for testing and personalisation. And that’s where server-side testing becomes an attractive option.

Beyond technological concerns, public policy developments are also prompting a growing number of organisations to look at server-side solutions. The EU’s GDPR regulations and momentum behind strengthening data privacy protections in the U.S. – an area where California has been at the fore – provide a strong incentive for marketers to keep data and decision-making on the server-side as much as possible, away from the client device. 

Server-side’s necessities

Having a successful server-based personalisation plan requires more than having enough clout in the organisation to secure dev resources for the integration. Top talent in Product and R&D should be involved, and here’s why.

Let’s take the question of how to enable marketers to surface special offers or deliver targeted messaging across the site, exactly where and when they like, without needing dev time at all for all these changes. This can only happen if the solution is designed out of the gate to provide them with the flexibility and customisation capabilities they need for experimentation. You really need people who “get it” from the developer’s side.

As many companies have already invested in building out strong teams, moving to server-side should really be a matter of redirecting their focus toward integrating a sound personalisation solution that serves the organisation’s business model. As a technologist, I can tell you that developers are actually excited to see their work make an impact, and this is one great opportunity for them to deliver a success story.

Server-side’s benefits

In a survey released in April, the Harris Poll found 63 per cent of consumers expect personalisation as part of their digital experience. Whether we’re ready for that or not, we know our customers’ journey is increasingly taking place across multiple channels. This means we need to gain a pretty good understanding of the real, full funnel that users go through. The one which takes place across devices, across traffic sources and sessions. In particular, we should be looking to pinpoint the strengths, weaknesses, and breaks in this complex customer experience.

The bar is indeed getting higher. It’s simply not enough to design a winning customer journey on a single platform – it needs to span channels and build upon our nuanced understanding of the differences within our customer base.

This is where a well-integrated server-side solution goes a long way, both for analytics and taking action. Such a platform can offer full visibility into all relevant aspects of the user’s online experience, including their behaviour, the messaging they have been exposed to in each channel (which test variation or recommendation strategies, etc.), and how they engaged with it. It is much easier to have all your apps (be it web, native, hybrid, or whatever the next trend is) on the same page when decisioning happens centrally. It simplifies linking between the various devices your customer is using and executing based on that customer’s full profile.

The idea of making your apps personalisation ready from the get-go can actually be seen as an evolution rather than a brand-new concept. In the world of native mobile apps, one of the biggest pains is getting a new app version approved, released, and deployed in client devices. For this reason, developers sometimes call the server-side from the app to provide not just fresh content but also dynamic configuration, making it possible to control the app’s functionality and feel without needing a new code release. Doing server-side testing and personalisation is a powerful extension of that idea – to design from the start for the purpose of personalisation and tweaking experiences.  

Amid the proliferation of A/B testing, marketers have more tools than ever at their fingertips for testing and experimentation. To stay in the game, it may be time to jettison client-side testing and migrate to the server. Admittedly, the book on how to do this effectively is still being written; for me personally, it’s definitely top of mind.

Elad Rosenheim, VP of Technology, Dynamic Yield