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Web analytics for marketers who hate numbers

Web analytics for marketers who hate numbers Nicole Rawski

The field of web analytics is designed to extract incredibly valuable user insights that can, in turn, guide marketers in making educated decisions. There are sophisticated integration solutions that combine data sources, online behavior, and offline actions, thereby enabling marketers to measure how accurately campaigns support their business objectives. All of this data is great -- but it only means something if marketers understand and appropriately use the information that is extracted.

It's easy to get lost in a sea of metrics. In fact, as discussed in a previous iMedia article, marketers need to be on the lookout for telltale signs that their organizations are behind the curve when it comes to understanding the marketing implications of the data they're gathering.

Despite the immense importance of metrics to digital marketers, not everyone in your organization is going to be a numbers guru -- and they don't have to be. In this article, I'll provide a few tips for marketers who have an aversion to numbers, as well as a look at strategies they can employ to maximize the usefulness of their analytics reports.

First and foremost, prior to creating an online marketing dashboard, be sure to define all of your online business objectives and clearly understand how they contribute to your company's (or your client's) business goals. Tracking other metrics is great, but results are what matter in the boardroom. Make sure that business goals are tied to key performance indicators (KPIs) and that those will be reflected in the online objectives reported in your dashboard. By doing this, you will not have to make inferences about what the data points mean -- this information will already be laid out in front of you. Additionally, define and document where each metric comes from, as these notes will come in handy if questions arise later about how data are gathered.

Another aspect that can get lost in the creation of a dashboard is communication. Not everyone checks reports regularly, so make sure the entire team understands your online marketing program's key metrics and goals. If everyone has a vested interest in success, it is easier to see beyond dense reports and understand the objectives on the other side.

Creating dashboards
The creation of a dashboard is relatively easy once KPIs and corporate goals have been established. A dashboard should be created in such a way that a person can look it over and quickly gauge the overall health of a website. Needed changes should be fairly obvious. Term definitions should be included wherever industry jargon arises, and the dashboard should include the performance of each marketing tactic. Including this information in a report will enable marketing teams to understand where to adjust marketing dollars.

Dashboards can be created in a variety of ways, with digitally produced dashboards being the easiest to automate. Data can always be converted into formats like Excel to present data in a way that is easier to digest. On the next page is a sample dashboard that displays key performance indicators and marketing performance in a way that is easy to understand at a glance.

The below mock dashboard, created in Excel to provide a quick snapshot of a website's performance, is Geary's prototype for developing automated reporting. The top section is dedicated to changes in marketing strategy or site structure that could have affected performance during the given reporting period. This one shows month-over-month data, but dashboard reports can reflect any date range to reflect a marketer's needs.

(click to enlarge)

The section includes the KPIs that have been established for measuring primary online objectives. Obtainable goals that need to be achieved are also included in this section.

Trending graphs (such as the ones seen below the KPIs section) work best when marketing campaigns are overlaid on the graph in a way that enables you to visually see how they're affecting goals. To visualize how marketing efforts are driving results, look at the distribution of traffic and conversions from various marketing sources.

Lastly, this dashboard shows how marketing campaigns are performing side by side and compared to the previously reporting period. Combined, this data illuminates which campaigns are successful, whether they drive conversions, their impact on corporate objectives, and the output of optimization efforts -- a lot of information in one tidy package. And you don't have to be a statistician to understand what the dashboard is telling you.

Keep in mind that dashboards can look drastically different and provide a wide range of information, depending on your business objectives.

It's important to remember that dashboards are only a snapshot of performance during a given time period. If the report doesn't provide enough information to make educated decisions, then marketers should consider re-evaluating its format. Dashboards need to be tailored to their audiences. In other words, if the report is for a human resources team that depends on its website to find talent, dashboards need to highlight that information and not marketing campaign information.

Points to consider when looking at your dashboard to provide context include the following:

  • Acquisition tactics

  • Retention tactics

  • Site optimization tactics

Correlating external causes with effects seen in a dashboard is difficult. There are an infinite number of influencers that appear in analytics, but here are a few questions that can help decipher what is impacting your reports:

  • What changed with marketing campaigns?

  • Are acquisition tactics more/less targeted?

  • How have retention efforts contributed to key metrics?

  • Are site optimization efforts improving performance?

Remember, in the dashboard creation phase, each metric and how it changes over time should have been documented. Refer to this section to eliminate influencers, but if there is no obvious explanation, it's time to dig deep into the data and unearth the change stimulator.

If you notice a trend in conversion rates or visits, be sure to overlay any pertinent marketing efforts to see what may have directly impacted the change. For example, if conversion rates plummet, the cause of the decline should be revealed in the dashboard. Be sure to look at all key metrics, including visits and actual conversions. If conversions remain approximately the same, the answer is likely that a campaign increased traffic to the site significantly, but the new visitors did not convert. To boost conversion rates relative to new traffic, identify possible gaps in planning. Was the campaign adequately targeted? Do users experience any disconnects between the ad medium and landing page? Or are they simply doing preliminary research to convert later or offline?

One thing that I can't stress enough is the importance of humanizing dashboards. Conversion rates are more than data points. They are visitors to a site who are making a purchase, booking a flight, opening a checking account, or signing up for a newsletter. Bounce rates should be likened to consumers that walk into your store and make a U-turn without a purchase.

Of course, not every marketer is concerned with a tangible action like a purchase or completed lead form. If this is the case, create an action that a visitor can complete and be tracked to another action, such as an offline purchase. Using consumer packaged goods as an example, actions can range from downloading a coupon, viewing a product page, or locating a store. The key point here is to understand the people behind the action. What are they trying to accomplish? And can they do it easily?

Visitors coming to a site to learn where to purchase a product should have a high conversion rate for that action. Segment this traffic out based on the entry page (most likely a store locator page directed from a search engine) or based on their navigation path to the store locator page. It's a safe assumption that a person who clicks on "Store Locations" has the intent to make an offline purchase. By segmenting the traffic based on intent, the conversion rate will reveal whether the user was able to find the information they needed.

There are countless other ways to segment out user paths. To track the success of an online promotion, marketers can segment out the users that come to a site based on a search query containing the promotion name. The user intent is obvious in these examples, but they show the range of user information that can be obtained with a quick glance at a dashboard. Including this information brings life to data because it's not about clicks and bounce rates -- actions are associated with consumer behavior and intent; translating metrics into people provides context into understanding a website's real performance.

In conclusion, dashboards can be used as a simple tool for marketers -- even those who cringe at the idea of crunching numbers -- to get a quick glance at the key metrics that are most important to them. They help marketers gain a clearer and fuller understanding of their website and campaign performance, enabling them to make better decisions based on data -- and not their gut.

Nicole Rawski is a web analytics analyst at Geary Interactive.

On Twitter? Follow Rawski at @nicolerawski. Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Nicole Rawski can teach us all a thing or two about performance. As an Analytics Manager at Digitaria in San Diego, Nicole uses data to drive clients’ online presence and customer engagement. When she’s not helping clients reach new...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Nicole Rawski

2009, July 31

I'm glad that you all liked the article and that it brought value to you. It's very important to bring out who those visitors are while analyzing the data. Humanize it!

Commenter: Lee Mills

2009, July 30

Great article!

Commenter: Jacqueline Spates

2009, July 30

Great information about the way people view numbers in their organizations. Keep'em coming!

Commenter: Robert Rose

2009, July 29

Yet another extraordinarily insightful article on analytics. And I particularly loved:

"...is the importance of humanizing dashboards. Conversion rates are more than data points. They are visitors to a site who are making a purchase.."

When we use analytics to "improve" rather than "prove" - then we have a useful tool to help us be more successful.

Commenter: Penelope Flannery

2009, July 29

Very insightful and helpful. Puts a new spin on my out look. Thank you