Friday, December 26, 2008

How “Real” is Real-Time Web Analytics?

The nuances of real-time Web analytics are elusive, underused and often misinterpreted. Yet, real-time Web analytics is a feature that several vendors are seeking to fulfill. The way I see it, real-time has two components; real-time reporting and real-time processing. Real-time reporting makes Web analytics data visible within an interface instantaneously (or within 10 seconds). Real-time processing is the ability to create reports or segments and view data instantaneously (or again, within 10 seconds or less).

Real-Time Reporting
The last time I checked (back in May 2008), only Coremetrics, IndexTools, Nedstat and Omniture claimed to have real-time data reporting capabilities. At that time, Unica could report metrics within 15 minutes and Google Analytics shortly thereafter provided same day reporting (although they make no promises). So, overall the major Web analytics players are pretty fast about reporting, yet not impervious to flaws [I welcome comments on real-user data delay horror stories]. Of course, log files can typically be processed in real-time as well, yet don’t necessarily provide the slick interfaces of the previously mentioned vendors.

Now don’t get me wrong, I believe that Web analytics data should be reported as quickly as possible. I for one like to gauge metrics the same day I post or make changes to my site, however, it’s my opinion that real-time reporting is a luxury that many want but few properly exercise. To obtain real-time reporting so that a neurotic analyst can watch metrics as they accrue is not a good use of real-time reporting. However, those that use real-time data to populate content on pages or shift messaging to segments…now that’s interesting. But there’s a distinction here, where real-time automation is different than real-time decision-making. Decision-making based on data rarely (if ever), happens in real-time. Some might argue that alerting functionality provides the ability to make real-time decisions, but c’mon…is that really real-time?

    Alert -> Think [allot appropriate time for comprehension, protocol and red-tape] -> Take Action.
A time lapse view of this process will likely reveal less than optimal Alert-to-Action reflex.

Real-Time Processing
The second component of real-time is processing. This facet of real-time serves the instant gratification need in all of us. A typical scenario might unfold like this:
    Idea -> Create report to illustrate idea -> Processing… -> Insight!
Again, going back to my research from May 2008, I asked about each vendors’ ability to create segments in real-time with no delay in data representation. Most vendors did offer this functionality, with only Clicktracks and Nedstat reporting that they did make you wait (Omniture can perform real-time segment processing within Discover and Google Analytics didn’t have custom segments at that time, but they can do it now). Once data appears within an interface, analysts can slice and dice to their heart’s content. Processing times will vary based on complexity, the amount of information being processed and hardware and/or bandwidth available. But this really has nothing to do with real-time. Rather, it’s the ability to create a new report, segment or data view and gain access to it without having to wait.

Real-time automation of data – using rules-driven processes, event triggering and content delivery that occurs in real-time based on data derived from analytics does elevate the need for real-time data. While the applications that enable this type of real-time activity may be independent of Web analytics, there is an opportunity to improve – dare I say – “optimize” the process with real-time capabilities.

So, I’m really wondering if people are using real-time data in other ways that provide tangible value to their organizations? Beyond real-time dashboards that make great corporate lobby eye-candy are businesses making real-time decisions that require real-time Web analytics?

Friday, December 19, 2008

It’s Called “I Buy, You Wear”

Here’s some Friday fun and a bit of commercialism thrown in to illustrate just how far some people will go. My brother and I often play a ridiculous game we called “I Buy, You Wear”, when we find ourselves traveling in strange places or sometimes when we’re just bored. The game consists of going into a thrift shop, Wal-Mart or other haberdashery and buying an article of clothing that the other must wear. We usually cap expenses at $20 bucks, but the idea is to make my brother wear some unflattering garment, which is typically worn in the most audacious and self deprecating manner possible. I’ve received really bad Hawaiian shirts, funny hats and even a sequin blouse that still hangs somewhere in the depths of my closet.

But the story I read today in the LA Times about the guy wearing a t-shirt a day with capitalistic goals is a new one for me. He’s already racked up $66,795 in pre-sold days just for getting dressed in the morning. Jason plans to Twit and Blog his way to stardom in just 365 days. Is this social media at its best? I think not.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

An Interview with Jascha Kaykas-Wolff: WebTrends Newly Appointed VP of Marketing

I’d like to start off by thanking Jascha for taking the time to speak with me in just week three on his new job at WebTrends. I sent him my interview questions in advance, so he had a bit of time to ponder his answers. But just so you know…Jascha is a very fast talker. I did my best to type as quickly my fingers would allow, but alas, some responses include paraphrasing. Here’s what we discussed:

JL: What will be your #1 priority upon moving into your new role at WebTrends?

The way I’d frame it is that I’m providing the definitive voice for our customers throughout all our communications, internal and external. Listen: I’m going to spend time with our customers; engage in dialogue, share ideas. In my first three weeks I’ve already been fortunate enough to have met with some of our partners like New York Times, McGraw-Hill and Reuters and I will continue to do so. My goal is to get to know the industry experts such as you and begin a consultative dialogue. I’m going to share my vision with our partners and you – AND – I’m looking for feedback. Most important to me is that I’m going to make changes because of the feedback where it’s appropriate. I want our relationships to drive value both ways.

I’ll do this by focusing on a Solution Viewpoint: We have an awesome collection of industry experts (business analyst, consultants, marketers, executives, sales people, partners and developers). As a company focusing on marketing optimization we will explicitly solve for the business problems of our customers with the right mix of our services, our partner services, our products and our partners products. For too long, web analytics vendors have focused on products and features instead of solutions.

I also plan to focus on our Customer conference: I’m shaping an event that will create meaningful experiences. Real, tangible value. I’ve been an attendee of customer conferences and usually left feeling unsatisfied with the substance of the content. Being spoken to just didn’t resonate with me as an individual or as a marketer. I’m driving a change in the style and delivery of the event to better meet the needs of customers and industry experts such as you. How? I believe that form meets function and that means driving a many-to-many discussion instead of the typical one-to-many oration.

JL: Can you provide some insight into your professional background at Microsoft and involvement with Web analytics, but more importantly how will you leverage this experience at WebTrends?

I was one of the first customers of WebTrends at Microsoft. My history with WebTrends in particular dates back around three years ago when I helped create what has now become Microsoft Store, Microsoft PinPoint, Windows Marketplace and digital locker. As we received funding to execute on the concept of marketplace & digital locker, I was challenged with the task of building and running the marketing team. In the context of this team, marketing encompassed: MarCom, Demand Gen, Merchandising, User Experience, Business Development, and Analytics. I chose WebTrends after a head-to-head RFP with the other major players. Once I was up and running as a business began to fully appreciate the power of the services and products. I understand the challenges and opportunities that web analytics customers face as I've been one for most of my career I intend to take my experience, the learning’s in particular, and reinforce them through our messaging. For example:

I plan to support this vision using the three pillars:

    1. Open access to data drives product innovation: Fundamentally, data about the web channel is only so interesting, it can and should be connected to the enterprise BI strategy and infrastructure. That is a core value proposition for WebTrends but it also can spurn innovation. In marketplace we utilized the WebTrends tags and data collection services to create collaborative filtering software…this type of innovation is happening everywhere. When I was consulting I explored attaching WebTrends visitor data to offline pricing optimization engines in financial services companies.

    2. Information empowers all parts of the business: My team used our analytics information to drive prioritization of development efforts across geographies. Our test teams and development teams in India and California would prioritize features and testing scenarios using the dashboards my team created.

    3. Partnership and thought leadership are an Absolute necessity: In retrospect I believe my team at MSFT were fairly sophisticated in the usage of analytics data to drive the business. We setup the organization structure, operational practices, and goals to reinforce the team’s use of data. That all said, we were able to get what we needed and sometimes what we didn’t know we needed because of support from the WebTrends Services team. I believe that a significant component to WebTrends future successes will be because our technology, coupled with a meaningful collaboration between our services team and our customers will drive real customer successes.

JL: Can you share any great success stories or breakthroughs you’ve had with Web Analytics and related marketing tools that influenced you to move from user to the vendor side?

Analytics has always played a significant role in my professional career. This opportunity for me personally is really exciting. Very specifically, I’m working for WebTrends because I believe in the passion they have for their customers. That starts from the top down with Alex Yoder as the company leader and extends to everyone here at this company.

I think that web analytics is entering an exciting time. In fact, the core benefit Web data will produce in the future probably shouldn’t even be called “Web analytics.” It’s not just about the “Web”. My view is that the introduction of the Web channel’s data will provide the most current and accurate view of customer behavior that any enterprise has ever known. The next step of maturity will be moving from a channel-centric, historical view of performance, to organization-wide use of customer-centric insights. At the end of the day, all this integration is about better predictive capabilities as well as continuous improvement against business problems. It’s a bit of a practical application of Ian Ayer’s Supercruncers.

JL: WebTrends has a large customer base, many of whom are on legacy versions of the product. How will you encourage existing customers to upgrade and continue using WebTrends solutions?

I really like this question. It gets at the heart of what we have to do to continue being successful. The large majority of our enterprise customers are on WebTrends On Demand; they are all on the current version. Software customers are thus the ones that can sometimes fall behind on their versioning. Regardless if they are on software or on-demand some of the things we are, and will be doing, to drive value include:
  • Introducing new service and support programs designed to help customers recognize more value from the solution and our products.

  • Creating and refining education programs to inform customers of new functionality and related service programs.

  • Making the upgrade process itself easier with things like deployment cookbooks and easier installs. I can tell you that easy deployment is something near and dear to my heart. At Microsoft, my team worked with so many partners and had to deal with numerous installations. So I recognize that it is a necessity that partners can empathize with pains that users feel.

At the end of the day, we believe it’s our responsibility to reach out to our customers and ensure they are not only getting the most out of our products but help them create solutions to solve their business problems.

JL: How do you envision supporting the “data independence” vision at WebTrends?

My vision is to drive our marketing initiatives to support three key contributors to success in this space:
    1. Invest heavily in our ecosystem: Data independence allows for and promotes innovation in the industry.

    2. Publishing and promoting our standards: You will see focused attention around the extension of TagBuilder, Our data collection components, and our Warehouse.

    3. Foster community engagement: Including driving 1:1 and many:many discussions with our customers and industry influentials such as you. I expect to make strides in this community engagement through tapping into social media and reshaping customer events to reinforce the importance of community engagement.

JL: Web analytics is one of several products offered by WebTrends including: Marketing Warehouse, Visitor Intelligence, Score and Ad Director. Given this product mix, which direction do you see WebTrends heading in the next 12 months?

At its highest level, the product mix we have today is about addressing the broader marketing optimization needs of our customers. We want to help customers get their message out and determine if the right behaviors are tied to business. It’s about leading with solutions and prioritizing services and products that support these solutions. Ad Director can be a part of a solution to help customers by creating a funnel that will bring customers to them and analytics will help them understand and influence changes in behavior. But this means exposing data out to others systems. We will continue to invest in marketing warehouse and rich insights about customer data and push forward on products that support data enrichment. That said, analytics remains a core product and we will continue to improve that as well.

JL: Considering the Web analytics market at large, how do you think the analytics industry will weather though challenging economic times ahead?

I tend to believe that in business and in our personal lives, we return to our comfort areas when things get tough. When I fall back, it is to being a data monger. I want to understand the successes and failures of my marketing efforts and web analytics gives me that opportunity. I think you said it well in your blog, and I’ll paraphrase: “The accountability that WA brings to marketing is irrefutable”. I think it’s prudent to prepare for challenging times ahead but I also believe that players in our space whom add real measurable customer value will continue to be healthy.

JL: WebTrends has been relatively quiet over the past year, what is the one thing you’d like to communicate to analytics practitioners, consultants, competitors and onlookers about WebTrends?

So, if you’re going to make me stick to one statement, it’s this: WebTrends is first and foremost a marketing optimization firm. But, that in and of itself isn’t the end. We empathize with the business problems of our customers. Our management has a deep understanding of the issues our customers face and the experience and flexibility to solve real business problems. This will help us make our customers and partners successful. We will do everything in our power to make customers successful in their marketing optimization initiatives.

JL: Thanks Jascha for taking the time to speak with me today and best of luck in your new role.

My pleasure. Thank you.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the Importance of Benchmarks

The 2008 retail frenzy is upon us and site operators are busy maintaining online shopping carts while executives are anxiously watching their bottom lines. An early report issued by ComScore this morning indicates that Black Friday 2008 drew in $534 million in online spending. This is a meager 1% bump from last year’s sales. While these numbers are low, it could be worse since myriad factors – including the dismal economy – are looming down on would-be shoppers. But don’t ink those calculations just yet. Today, dubbed “Cyber Monday” by the National Retail Federation is historically a more accurate predictor for online spending. The JupiterResearch US Online Holiday Retail Forecast pins 2008 online retail growth at 12% despite the woeful economic challenges. Still, this is the smallest increase in online shopping since the inception of the Internet, which is poised to blow away off-line holiday sales, forecast at only 2% growth. As an impartial outsider, these figures lead me to ponder the importance of benchmarking within retail and Web site operations at large.

As Americans, we love to compare. Benchmarks within the online world offer us the opportunity to gauge success against industry norms, fierce competitors, and even ourselves. Companies like Gomez, Inc benchmark Web site performance and availability to inform us how well sites stand up against traffic spikes and heavy loads. In typical fashion, this year proved that even the largest brands are susceptible to performance degradation. Today beginning at 10am ET the Victoria Secret shopping cart was producing errors and Williams-Sonoma experienced slowdowns at their shopping cart page – a critical transaction juncture. Over the weekend, Overstock experienced an uncharacteristic slowdown from 5 to 6 second average to over 17 seconds for synthetic transactions. suffered the biggest outage, with nearly 40% of transaction attempts squashed on Black Friday. While these numbers are interesting, they are possible through benchmarking. By evaluating performance and availability during non-critical times, the numbers during the holiday crunch can be evaluated in light of what’s normal.

Coremetrics applies this rigor to Web analytics benchmarking. Traditionally Web analytics is an introspective endeavor, with metrics used to compare internal hourly/daily/monthly/seasonally/yearly performance against one’s own measures. Enter the Coremetrics Benchmark Industry Reports that now provide historic comparisons of retail performance across a number of key Web metrics. Data parsed out for the Black Friday surge indicated that 2008 online shoppers; spent less time on sites, converted fewer new visitors and decreased in average order values, when compared to data from Black Friday 2007. A few verticals within retail including department stores and gifts showed promise, but not enough to buoy the entire retail category. While the data may be bleak, the benchmark provides a granular look at metrics that matter for retailers. These data, when evaluated internally, should be used to help site owners determine where to prioritize action on their own sites. An external comparison should be used to illustrate how individual numbers compare against the whole. This tactic may save few merchandisers from the fire, but at least provides context to metrics that matter.

Benchmarking is fairly unique among Web analytics vendors and currently offered by only Coremetrics and Google Analytics. Do you use Web analytics benchmarks? If so, I'd love to hear your use cases and how benchmarks provide valuable insight to your organizations.