Monday, October 19, 2009

Truth, Lies and Delusion in Web Analytics

Matt Cutler said it best recently at the Web Analytics X Change conference; “We are on a noble quest for truth”. He was referring to the fact that Web analytics - an industry that Matt helped to create - is about understanding. Yet, as with any epic story our protagonist (the industry), is challenged to find the way to the mysterious and intangible place that is Web analytics enlightenment. Matt went on to say; “Truth doesn’t happen easy…Truth doesn’t come for free.” And he was right on all accounts. These truths we seek in Web analytics are elusive because of innumerable factors such as lack of support, a dearth of qualified practitioners, low data confidence, and failure to derive actionable insights. This brewing storm of impediments has stymied the Web analytics industry since its inception. However, collectively we are determined to find the truth - a workaround – a reinvention – an evolution - or perhaps a wholesale revolution is afoot.

The lies we tell in Web analytics are white ones. Our numbers, metrics and KPIs are communicated with the best intentions, yet our data oscillates within a range of deviation. Most practitioners have forsaken precision for accuracy and resigned to the fact that our measures provide directional guidance – not empirical facts. Our current measurement practices dance around the issues of accuracy by offering insights at a generalized level, offering shards of intelligence, which undoubtedly are better than none. However, communication tactics require silver tongued practitioners to educate with accuracy while avoiding the details of precision. Educated marketing guesswork has devolved from the visions of an infinitely measureable Web. Still we persevere because our noble quest nags our collective conscience in knowing that we can deliver more.

Delusion is the shroud practitioners use to keep themselves on the path towards truth. Despite that the majority of Web analytics practitioners claim well-defined strategies, most offer fledgling plans that lack truly progressive vision. Further, despite the perception of unequivocal support, most practitioners tirelessly combat widespread internal cynicism. Yet, those dedicated to the cause endure by squinting to see the positives. I too am one of these eternal optimists that choose to push on. Yet, I forecast change for Web analytics. Our industry is undergoing metamorphosis and those that resist change will be left behind. I choose to act as an agent for change and to expose new initiatives with merit; to question the statements of the collective whole; and to insist that the status quo is not capable of delivering us to analytical excellence.

This rant comes as I sit in wait to arrive at eMetrics in DC where, Web analytics practitioners, vendors and optimists like myself will gather to ruminate on our future. While I envision miles to go before we sleep, I’m confident that change will lead to better optimization overall. What do you see?

1 comment:

Aurélie Pols said...

Matt’s quest for truth.
Of the 4 founding fathers at Xchange, 2 worried me.
Data is powerful. Look at how a KPI like GDP has influenced our world’s economic history. And truth is just as dependable upon a point of view as the notion of justice. Ask yourself if what is true to you resonates the same way with your neighbor. How about what’s fair?

Web Analytics is an infinite fraction of all data companies can use to make decisions in order to fulfill their mission. Hopefully it’s about more than just making money!
Through the years, I’ve seen bad decisions made based on good data and vice-versa. I would very much like to share your optimism.

No doubt the digital (r)evolution will bring along more data driven decision making once all involved get their act together, delivering upon the measurability promise. How this data will be put to use, will depend upon points of view if not readily shared.
When it comes to Web Analytics, with Google’s latest announcements, we can rejoice in thinking that the technology is there, available.
So what are we going to do with?

Gathering data is no longer an issue. Google did a great job at commoditizing the technical practice of web analytics. I’ve met several dozens of great techies who just get so enthusiastic at the very idea of capturing and rendering sliced and diced data in the most difficult technical circumstances. I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with some and don’t doubt Omniture’s recent acquisition by Adobe will continue to foster a wonderful pool of smart and creative professionals.

But then what do you do with it? Data for the sake of data doesn’t support a companies’ mission. Neither does putting out an RFP to an Interactive Agency because the latest fad is social media. As a former colleague tweeted, a fool with a tool is still a fool.
I discovered through time and thanks to my partner what the foundations of a web analytics Strategy can be. I’m constantly reminded that very little companies actually have one. Another tweet: when the web analyst leaves, the practice of web analytics more often than not withers away.

It just doesn’t make sense to set-up a web analytics strategy if you don’t have a digital strategy to begin with. We should be talking about digital analytics where gathering so much data – which is truly remarkable – should be seen as an excuse to tip toe into data driven decision making.
Companies aren’t used to this. More often than not, as a smart person noted recently in Stockholm, marketing departments do like to discuss about what their *experience* tells them will work. The HIPPO is out there and will not magically disappear. He will however inevitably retire ;-)

I’ve seen companies loose market share as barriers to entry are lowering and smart competitors are listening to their customers.
I’ve wondered if this was inherent to the companies’ philosophy, if it could be changed. By showing what is possible, how data and digital applications can be used in a smart way, mindsets can evolve.

Today’s winners might be tomorrow’s looser if they don’t learn to leverage the immense power rendered by our industry. Technically, we are well on our way imho. What we miss are smart analysts to help companies ask the right questions, within the context of their mission in order to share some possible answers and create value for all involved.

Whether this means companies’ structure will have to adapt to a new paradigm is beyond the scope of digital analytics. Smarter people than me are debating the possible foundations of Management 2.0. (see Gary Hamel’s Moonshots for Management) and even smarter companies are applying interesting human resources techniques to foster creativity and participation in decision making.

I bless the day when I sat down next to Jim Humphries at my first eMetrics summit. I bless the day when NetGenesis in Amsterdam inspired me a decade ago.
Yes, we are on a noble quest for truth, of understanding and sharing of data in order to foster debate and create value. For better or for worse.