What is a control group?

In marketing, a control group is a subset of an audience or customer base used to gauge the effectiveness of a marketing campaign.

By comparing the results from both groups, businesses can identify which campaigns are most successful and make more informed decisions when launching future campaigns.

What are some examples of control groups in marketing?

Control groups form the foundations of campaign optimization, giving marketers the ability to test new content, offers, and more.

Here are some examples of the roles control groups could play across different marketing channels:

Email: when testing the impact of an abandoned browse email automation, the control group might receive a standard, urgency-focused email. The test group might then be given a discount coupon. The results of each can be measured and compared to determine which strategy worked better.

Paid social: when trying to boost the performance of paid social campaigns, a control group might be targeted with the current best-performing ad creative. Different test groups would then be shown new ad sets containing creatives that present new offers, trial different ad formats, or use different messaging in the creative.

Web: product and sales pages are popular subjects for A/B split testing. In this instance, the control group would be shown the current best-performer, and test groups would be shown variants featuring different images, headlines, and product descriptions.

When (and when not) to use control groups

While control groups can be powerful tools for innovating and driving business performance, they have a time and a place.

Strong candidates for control groups and testing include:

  • Paid ads

    : including social media search and display
  • Email automations: including abandoned cart, browse, post-purchase, and win-back
  • Email campaigns

    : including sales notifications and limited-time offers
  • SMS

    : featuring promotions and sales messaging.
  • Landing pages

Areas to avoid control group testing include:

  • Transactional emails

    : basic messages that are designed to provide shipping and payment updates
  • Emergency SMS

    : featuring business-critical and/or safety updates

Why use control groups?

In marketing, there’s no such thing as perfect. As a result, ambitious businesses continually test their campaigns and content to try and improve performance. Here are three reasons why control groups are an invaluable resource:

  • Easily identify high performers

    : control groups allow businesses to stack the performance of two separate campaign creatives against each other, easily singling out the strategy that’s worked the best.
  • Reduce costs and boost ROI

    : by using control groups to continually test campaigns, businesses cut out poor-performing campaigns, reducing wasted marketing spend, and increasing ROI.
  • Make better business decisions

    : Armed with the knowledge of what’s worked in the past — and what hasn’t — businesses gain a deeper understanding of their audiences. This can help them make smarter campaign decisions in the future.

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