Conversion Optimization: What Boomerang Champions Can Teach Us
First of all, yes: There really are boomerang competitions and champions! In fact, a member of the DAGMAR Marketing team has met numerous premiere boomerang athletes with international competition titles under their belts and has written extensively about this curved stick that returns. And, although this may be a novel twist on the subject, we’d like to suggest that the primitive crafters of boomerangs were in fact among the earliest conversion optimizers.
Conversion optimization, in the context of a website, typically involves making small, measurable tweaks to ultimately produce greater returns, right? Well, that’s precisely what ancient humankind did, leading to the creation of the boomerang.
How this happened, exactly, we will never know. But let your mind drift back tens of thousands of years when men and women were dwarfed by massive wooly mammoths and other colossal creatures. To protect themselves and/or to hunt, they used whatever suitable materials were available, such as sticks and stones. Over time, they discovered that some sticks did a better job than others and this led to the more deliberate crafting of what we today call throwing sticks or kylies.
These sticks tend to be banana-shaped and do not return to the thrower. Although we may never know when they were invented, the oldest to date was found, shattered in pieces, in a cave in Krakow, Poland—along with a man’s thumb bone, the oldest human remains found in that country. Scientific dating estimates these finds to be more than 20,000 years old.
Ten-thousand-year old kylies have been uncovered in Florida and golden-capped ivory sticks and gilt-tipped ebony sticks dazzled the explorers who found them in the Egyptian tomb of King Tut. And, yes, kylies also existed in ancient Australia as well as in numerous other places around the globe.
From Kylie to Boomerang
Kylies were likely used significantly before the more complex, returning boomerang. Try to imagine primitive man—or perhaps a boy just being initiated into the art of kylie-making—putting too much of a curve, too sharp of an air foil on his throwing stick. Picture the amazement of the clan as the stick goes out, starts to curve slightly, like a kylie should, and then begins to make its journey back towards the thrower. Just how stunned were they?
The first boomerang prototype very likely was an accident, but it may not have taken long for people to begin to analyze what was different about the stick that started to curve back to return to the thrower. Some speculate that these boomerangs, objects that were really over-optimized kylies, were then used in rituals and/or to serve as decoys. Throw one over a pond full of ducks, for example, and they would begin to huddle together, perhaps suspecting a hawk. Then it was easier for ancient man to capture those ducks for dinner.
Fast forwarding by tens of thousands of years, competitive boomerang competitions are now held around the country and in multiple places in the world, with some of the globe’s most talented throwers living right here in the United States (including Florida, home of DAGMAR Marketing!).
Multi-variant testing, where more than two options are tested at a particular time, is not new, as proven by Barnaby Ruhe who may be best known for his William Tell trick. Barnaby began throwing boomerangs in 1976 when his uncle started to hold workshops at the Smithsonian Institute. About 2,000 people showed up and, as Barnaby shared in a 1996 interview, “It didn’t occur to any of us to make boomerangs look like just another typical sport. It was really a stone-aged ritual launched into the space age, skipping over the machine age entirely. As a slightly illogical person, then, I thought if we weren’t going to make it look like other sports, then we should go completely in the opposite direction.”
To perform his William Tell trick, Barnaby would toss on a cape and cap, attaching an apple to his cap through the use of a wooden peg—and then throw his knife-like boomerang, slicing the apple in half on top of his own head. This, as you might imagine, is no easy feat!
Here’s when Barnaby performed this trick on the television show, That’s Incredible:
Barnaby has an unusual style when practicing his throws. Rather than testing one change in his throwing style at a time, as most ‘rang-ers do, he may change three, four or even five. And, yes, it led to Barnaby getting a scarred forehead, but it also allowed him to make amazing discoveries about patterns of flight.
Here’s more about what we learned about multi-variant testing, thanks to boomerang champ, Barnaby Ruhe!
Now here’s a look at how three other boomerang champions tweak their way to (much!) better returns.
For fun, ten-time world champion Chet Snouffer tosses a boomerang, does a standing back flip, then casually catches the ‘rang behind his back in mid-flip. It’s a great way to warm up, after all. Right?
We asked Chet what kinds of conversion optimization techniques have helped him to win his world titles—and the first one echoes Barnaby’s actions.
“Take risks,” Chet immediately says. “Don’t limit yourself because you’re afraid of lower conversions and don’t ever give up. Avoid doing what ‘everybody knows.’ Instead, go off the beaten path.”
As an example, he takes us back to the 1990s when he needed to increase the performance and accuracy of his boomerangs in a variety of wind conditions. He didn’t want them to blow away, or even to leave the tight circles he was creating, and conventional wisdom would have told him to add weight, perhaps by taping pennies onto the tips of his ‘rangs. “But,” he says, “I wanted to increase drag without significantly increasing weight, so I started to experiment with Velcro. I tried Velcro at the bottom of my boomerang, in the center, on the tips.”
To make matters more complicated, he needed to be able to adjust on a dime in a competitive event called doubling. In this event, a thrower tosses two boomerangs at the exact same time. The goal is to have one fly fairly level while the other gains height, and the boomerang athlete then needs to catch both of them, one right after the other. To make this doable, it’s important to create separation between the two boomerangs—so Chet began experimenting with putting the Velcro in different places on each of his two doublers to differentiate their flight paths.
“After I unleashed Velcro in international tournament play,” Chet recalls, “its use spread as people adopted the technology. And, I also started to think about how Doug DuFresne used to increase his range by using small flaps of tape to disturb the air flow over a boomerang’s tips. How, I wondered, could this help me in the fast catch event?”
In fast catch, a thrower needs to toss out and catch a boomerang five times. The amount of time in which it takes him or her to complete this task is the recorded score, with the fastest time winning. But, each boomerang must travel at least 20 meters out for it to count as a legitimate throw. “So,” Chet says, “I needed my boomerang to be fast and to go out just past the required 20 meters. I didn’t want to add any unnecessary weight and I needed a strategy that I could replicate repeatedly.”
He therefore began experimenting with Doug DuFresne’s tape-flap strategies, testing different heights, different widths—and even different tape folds. Every tenth of a second, remember, counted when competing against the world’s best. “Then,” Chet reveals, “I thought about those little file tabs at the office supply store with adhesive on them. I put one of them on the trailing edge of my boomerang’s wing and I now had an easy solution that I could duplicate easily—and exactly.”
Discover more about the role of risk taking in conversion optimization!
Conversion Optimization Failure? Are You Sure?
Chet points out how a so-called failed conversion optimization attempt could in fact be a success that you just hadn’t realized yet. “In 1991,” he says, “I was the defending world champion but I ended up in second place in international competition in Perth, Australia. People were successfully using three-bladed boomerangs at that event, but I had stubbornly held on to my two-bladers—and lost my title. I wasn’t going to be outgunned again, so I developed three bladers for the trick catch event, using what I knew about aerodynamics.”
In trick catch, boomerang throwers need to perform behind-the-back catches, foot catches and more. “My new three-bladed boomerangs,” Chet continued, “made for a pleasing catch but they flew low and didn’t hover the way I needed them to do, to give me time to effectively make a trick catch. No matter what I did, these boomerangs just didn’t work, which really aggravated me.”
Days later, Chet had his lightbulb moment. “I was so focused on the fact that these boomerangs weren’t working for trick catch that I couldn’t see them for what they really were: ideal fast catch boomerangs! Because that wasn’t my original goal, I needed time to look at the big picture, to gain perspective. I then went on to set the United States record for the fast catch event.”
Don’t let preconceived notions hurt your conversion optimization!
When You Have Nothing to Lose
This is when, Chet says, you often come up with your best ideas, your freest thinking. It was the world championships, with the fast catch event up next. Because of the speed needed to win this event, throws and catches needed to be as perfect as possible.
But forget perfect. At the moment in time Chet is describing, Team USA was totally struggling and the difficult wind conditions sure weren’t helping. “I borrowed a natural elbow accuracy Applewood from John Flynn,” Chet explains. In other words, he used a boomerang NOT intended for fast catch but for another event entirely: accuracy.
Then what? “Well,” Chet continued, “I started to warm up but the wind was still a problem. So, I finally said, ‘John, dude, I’m just going to throw this boomerang upside down!’ At that point, it began flopping back and forth like a dead duck—but it was also deadly accurate. And, we won the event.”
So, this wasn’t just out-of-the-box thinking. It was unconventional thinking squared!
“Do what you love and love what you do—and the world will boomerang back to you.”
We knew we also needed to talk to Gary Broadbent, who—besides having a long and impressive competitive resume—owns the world’s largest boomerang collection, with the figure of 15,000 old news by now. The number, in fact, may be reaching 20,000 and it took two filled-to-the-brim moving trucks to transport them (and his boomerang-making equipment) during his recent move to Florida.
We couldn’t reach Gary for this blog post right away, which was unusual, because Gary loves to talk boomerangs. We then found out that, at the time we were calling, he was riding a mule down the Grand Canyon where he had no cell phone reception; the mule’s name, by the way, was Prudence.
Anyhow, Gary has boomerangs shaped like Michael Jordan dunking a basketball, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, clothes hangers, letters of the alphabet, ancient kylies and so much more. He has a boomerang with four-foot-long wings, small plastic indoor boomerangs—and everything in between.
One of Gary’s passions, then, is to discover why uniquely shaped boomerangs behave as they do.
As the holder of the doubling world record—not once, but twice—it was important for Gary to have reliable sets of doublers. So, he took an entire sheet of material and cut out 18 insider doublers and then made 18 outside doublers from another sheet. He put small holes in the outside doublers and made them slightly fatter in the wings. “I marked each set and put air foils on each one. I waited for a calm day to test them because I didn’t want wind to affect my testing. I then threw each set.”
Observing where they landed, he marked the sets that performed close to what he wanted. “People say they want separation between each doubler to have time to catch them,” he says, “but I want more than separation. I want divorce.”
To add appropriate drag to address wind challenges, he experimented with adding rubber bands and Velcro—and yet, 15 of the inside 18 were unstable, going into “death spirals.” Gary was puzzled because he could have sworn he’d made the sets exactly the same. “I then realized,” he said, “how the boomerangs that performed well had a back-end trailing edge that was so sharp it was virtually frictionless. So I used a pneumatic drum to replicate that and then they all flew great.”
Know the Science
When trying to adjust returns, whether with websites or boomerangs, it’s crucial to understand the science behind what you’re doing. With boomerang throwing, that involves Bernoulli’s Principle of Lift, gyroscopic procession and centripetal force. And Gary has studied the science behind boomerang movement for decades, using it to improve his performance. “You want slow molecules on the bottom of your boomerang,” he explains, “and fast on top. Without knowing it, ancient boomerang crafters had created the world’s earliest airplane wings.”
Finally, we talked to Logan Broadbent, Gary’s son who is currently the top-ranked thrower in the United States. He is ranked number two in the world as we speak, and he recently appeared on the kick-butt television show, Ninja Warrior. In May 2017, he will be returning to Ninja Warrior (oh, the puns that suggests!). Boomerang throwing, not surprisingly, was the first sport he was ever introduced to. “In fact,” he says, “my father claims I caught my first boomerang at 18 months of age, but I was still in my crib and I think it was more like the boomerang accidentally landed on me.”
Here’s Logan in action:
Adjust, Adjust, Adjust
Logan brings up a good point: Because he started so young, he has probably had to make more optimization tweaks than any other living thrower. “I’ve had to modify so much as I’ve improved in my throwing ability, in my muscle strength, and in what boomerangs I can throw. I’ve needed to make multiple iterations as I’ve grown and developed as a person and I continue to tweak and change to meet peak performance needs.”
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Trick catch is one of Logan’s favorite events and he will try one particular method of an under-the-leg catch, as just one example, hundreds of time. Then he tries a different method hundreds of times. “Whatever consistently provides the best results,” he says, “becomes my method of choice.”
Sometimes, though, even Logan can get caught up in doing something because it’s the way he’s always done it before. “In the hackey catch,” he says, “I used to kick using the inside of my foot, moving my leg towards my body, to kick up the boomerang to make a catch. After doing it that way for a long time, I got pretty good.”
At some point, though, he tried using a kicking motion where he kicked away from his body. He didn’t do as well. But, was this because it wasn’t a good idea? Or was it because he needed to practice more, having done it another way for so long? It ultimately ended up that the second was true because he then had room to dive, which gave him the ability to catch the boomerang more often. “Bad habits,” he says, “become easier with practice, but you often have to unlearn skills and learn a better way, one that will give you peak performance. That takes self-discipline.”
He used to struggle with behind-the-back catches. “I’m a relatively small person,” he says, “and the boomerang was bouncing off of me. There just wasn’t enough separation between me and the boomerang. So, rather than turning when a boomerang comes close, I immediately put my hand behind my back and proactively move my body so my hand is already positioned where the boomerang will soon be. Most people still spin to catch the boomerang but I now have less to think about because my hand is already at the right place at the right time.”
No One Right Way
You also have to realize, Logan shares, that there can be multiple best ways to do things and you ultimately have to determine what’s best for your style. Take the foot catch. You can lie down on your back or side and catch a boomerang with your feet. You can use the sides of your feet to clamp down—or even the side of one foot and the bottom of the other, making a t-shape. You can catch the boomerang close to your body with knees bent or further away with legs straight out—and not everyone will come to the same conclusion. And that’s okay.
Remember to Retest
Finally, he reminds us that what worked in the past may not work in the future. When he compares when he competed on the 2010 world championships team to when he did so in 2016, plenty had changed. “I’d changed my throwing techniques using more spin. In 2010, I didn’t have the strength for heavier boomerangs but now I do. So what worked in 2010 wasn’t what did in 2016 now that I have more power.”
Concluding Conversion Optimization Tips
Although each boomerang athlete profiled here has his own unique style, there are definitely strategies in common. They include:
- Have a clear goal
- Be iterative
- Be persistent
Finally, they all educate themselves and then, using that knowledge as a base, embrace intuition. Yes, conversion optimization—whether with websites or boomerang throwing— is a science, but it is also a finely-honed art.
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