The purpose of web (or any) analytics

I just wanted to follow up on my last post with some personal thoughts, maybe refining the message a little bit.

I’ve gotten some great feedback via twitter/facebook/conversations that got me thinking about this some more. What’s the purpose of web analytics? Now keep in mind, this is just how I have come to see the world, and you may see it differently. But this works for me (so far) and I’d love to hear your thoughts on why your way works for you. So, please leave comments.

Analytics world view:

We talk about being data-driven businesses. But these aren’t businesses built around a culture of measurement. They’re built around a culture of accountability.

That sounds a little scary, but bear with me here for a second.

It’s my opinion that measurement alone is not a compelling source of value to a business. We know that the absence of measurement is very horrible, and it’s still a problem. There is value to measurement, but it just isn’t compelling, which is why I think there are still sites out there with zero visibility into what’s happening on their sites.

The effective use of that measurement (a separate trade, called analysis) is highly compelling, though.

For example, people get as excited about accounting as they get about watching paint drying on growing grass. Accountants measure. Yes, they occasionally help companies defraud millions of Americans out of their retirement, but most days are just measuring. Analysts, on the other hand, use that measurement to make a company accountable to goals, outcomes, advancement, achievement. I think we need to be building cultures around those things.

But I also know that measurement is seen as a stepping stone on the way to these things. If we can build a culture of measurement first, we will be closer to a culture of achievement.

Now I can’t tell the future, but my gut tells me that this stepping-stone approach will end up biting us in the medium and long term. If we set precedence around our role and a purpose of measuring, we will likely face a difficult battle when we strive for the next stepping stone. Businesses like to define roles. If we’re looking for ours to be fluid or evolutionary, that’s tough for them to handle. I fear that our steps are momentum-less, in other words. So we’d better take big ones.

True, you can’t do analysis without measurement. But this is sort of like saying you can’t build houses without wood; you just don’t see people going nuts about lumber.

Let’s make it a [vitally important] afterthought, and count on the fact that good analysts will make 100% certain that the measurement is handled because it’ll cripple them otherwise.

So, the world view part:

In my mind, the purpose of web analytics, or any analytics, is to give your organization the confidence needed to accelerate the pace of decisions.

I don’t think that the purpose of analytics is limited to helping the company make better decisions: great, slow decisions are a hallmark of companies who stink. Plus, better, more economically-valuable decisions are a completely unavoidable outcome of good analytics, so I’m going to just recommend that we start taking that for granted. Yes, use it as a selling point: it will be the thing that gives your organization greater confidence. But to me, success will be based on pace, not just rightness. Being able to make good decisions faster compounds their effectiveness.

I think it’s an unsafe assumption that once decisions are made better, they’ll magically get made faster. Most big decisions are made slowly because people are afraid of being judged; they’re nearly paralyzed. When you research a decision for a quarter and make the best, most economically-rewarding decision possible, you suck if you could have made the same decision in 5% of the time, and made 50 more decisions over the year that all compounded the value of the first one.

And a culture of accountability sounds scary, like a place where everyone is constantly told about everything they didn’t do right. But think about such a place: the only way for it to sustain itself is for people to establish a comfort level with failure: failure is a part of the process. And the only way the company can survive is if the system is built to react to failure, not built on the assumptions that decisions are right. Think about it today: why is testing so hard? Why are changes to your web site difficult? Because your site is built around decisions made in ink, not in pencil.

Also, we’re talking about being accountable to outcomes, not to some Tyrannosaurus on a power trip. That’s a big deal.

Again, like the last post, this isn’t about making big decisions quickly, it’s about making big decisions often. A usability person or designer who makes one big decision about a product details page will be much less effective than a similarly-skilled person making frequent decisions about that interface based on a constant stream of information that keeps him accountable to the success of that page.

Give it a try. You wouldn’t be the first organization to embrace failure and show employees it’s not the end of the world to be wrong. In fact, being wrong is the only thing that allows us to be more right.

Let’s build that kind of a culture. One that forgets about the measurement, because that has to happen to get to the good stuff. We need to take measurement completely for granted.

Whether we get there stone-by-stone or in one big leap is up to us.


3 Trackbacks

  1. […] 1:00 – Michele Hinojosa joins us on the cast! 3:20 – Customer Service – Is it measurable? 5:00 – Are digital and social media based customer service teams doing a good job of integration with brick & mortar locations? 6:00 – Silo’s – We dislike them here at the Measure Mob, seems all they’re really good for is storing corn! 12:00 – Jason rants! Customer service centric business’ to bagging your own groceries? 14:00 – Customer service, a cost center? or valued department? 17:00 – CRM and web data integration 20:00 – Do we need a digital data czar? 28:00 Discussing a culture where by it’s ok to make mistakes. (Inspired by Evan Lapointe) […]

  2. […] 1:00 – Michele Hinojosa joins us on the cast! 3:20 – Customer Service – Is it measurable? 5:00 – Are digital and social media based customer service teams doing a good job of integration with brick & mortar locations? 6:00 – Silo’s – We dislike them here at the Measure Mob, seems all they’re really good for is storing corn! 12:00 – Jason rants! Customer service centric business’ to bagging your own groceries? 14:00 – Customer service, a cost center? or valued department? 17:00 – CRM and web data integration 20:00 – Do we need a digital data czar? 28:00 Discussing a culture where by it’s ok to make mistakes. (Inspired by Evan Lapointe) […]

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One Comment

  1. Alex

    Great post … to show the true value of analytics you’ve to think beyond just measurement, you’ve to be in the habits of routinely providing a steady stream of actionable insights and constantly optimizing the business.
    Most of how we see the world is also dependent on organizational maturity – a business that embraces failure and learns from it is obviously at the top of the maturity level – but I think as analytics professionals we also forget how much impact we can have in accelerating that maturity.

    Posted May 6, 2011 at 12:26 am | Permalink