The web analytics 180

So, we have some pretty lofty hopes for web analytics in 2011. Let’s talk about how and why we get there.

Avinash made a pretty funny point about my post by saying that all I want is a complete reboot. Well, I’m going to call it a reversal, instead. A 180. A McTwist. And I think we’re going to absolutely stick the landing.

So, why a 180? I believe what was once last will soon be first. What once happened at the bottom will happen at the top. What once served will be served to. Analytics is about to completely reposition itself, and I really don’t think it’s going to take that much effort. In fact, the best of you will make it look effortless.

Today, a lot of analytics teams exist to serve an organization, or various parts of it. People ask for information, data, reports, insight, etc. Then we go to our mission control centers and, using myriad tools, techniques, and sources, we get what they asked for. Oftentimes, we do so without being asked: proactively serving various stakeholders in their goals to improve performance and generate cash flow against their reason for existing in the company. But I see a major problem in this model.

This model depends on a flow of accountability that’s largely centered around people and hierarchy. People are accountable to other people. And I think this is a relatively shitty way of going about it, given the insight we have into how well we are executing. I think we should be focusing on creating accountability to outcomes, instead. People should need to be accountable to the accomplishment of objectives and the success of their efforts.

Some may argue that this is what analytics is today, but I don’t agree. Yes, I do think that the analyses we complete today do help the conversation and add a lot of clarity around whether people have been successful, but ultimately people are not accountable to the outcome itself, they are accountable to a person who very well may be a complete idiot, jerk, luddite, or more realistically and innocently: may have personal goals that really don’t roll up well into a cohesive story of “success” at the organization level.

It really isn’t a reach. Most of us have dealt with brands that have a lot of internal conflict, and that internal conflict reveals itself in outward ways. I’ve harped on American Airlines for years, that for a long period of time, it was almost easier to book a hotel room than a flight from their home page, if you could even see those options past the credit card, loyalty program, rental car, social media prostitution, and other crap that was all over their home page. Thankfully, they have since fixed this debacle, but what we were witnessing was a direct result of accountability to people. These different people all had different goals. And the only way for the credit cards partner VP to make her Christmas bonus was to sell the crap out of credit cards. Same for the hotel partner. And for the frequent flier exec. And for the social media maven. All of these people were literally compensated to fight with each other over real estate, and a single success that everyone could celebrate was a complete impossibility.

I call this phenomenon “the land of 1,000 suns,” where each little plant has its own sun it grows toward. There may be several plants growing toward one of the suns, and some suns are bigger than others, but it means everyone is pretty much going a different direction.

What we need is a way of figuring out how everyone can have a good Christmas (or appropriate holiday) based on a holistic view of success. A way of creating a model of give-and-take, where we realize that the credit card VP sacrificing $650,000 per month means that the rental car VP is able to gain $2,000,000, and that when this compromise is made, both of these executives get a healthy kickback. Hmm, what could possibly help facilitate this?

We can.

I said before that analytics serves the organization. Well, the 180 would be that the organization serves analytics. That doesn’t mean that they serve us, it means they serve what we provide. It’s people that make it all screwed up, so let’s take the people out if it, as much as we possibly can.

So what does this mean, that the organization serves analytics? Well, to greatly oversimplify the process of a company’s business, we have the highest levels setting vision, the next level down setting strategy, and the next level down executing tactics. Today, the process yo-yos, starting at vision, progressing all the way down to tactics, where we then measure those tactics and the yo-yo gets jerked back the other direction, bringing reports, data, insight, and ideas up with it back to the executive suite. This isn’t an efficient or effective process, and the messages that come up with the yo-yo often come across as overly-focused on the small picture, which makes sense because that’s exactly what the analysis was about: a tiny little cross section of the business.

I don’t think that analytics teams should be setting vision, but in that phase where vision turns into strategy — a place that will make a wonderful home for us — lives a space where we can create those models of accountability. When you look at the area between high-level vision and the strategies that will help realize that vision, you find a loose and relatively unmanaged concept of whether or not we are successful, where strategies conflict with each other, and how we react to these conflicts to weave our various efforts into a cohesive set of tactics. This is analytics. REAL analytics. Understanding how a company creates value and systematically identifying all of the opportunities to create greater value by analyzing the complex network of efforts is the very nature of analytics. When we think that we are just looking at a web site and its little network of activity in hopes of finding a better conversion rate, we are doing ourselves a huge disservice. Yes, our web sites do have a lot of opportunity. But the reason that the vast majority of those opportunities exist is the large, unwatched, under-analyzed, and horribly destructive issue of poor operations. And with our unbiased approach to strategies and tactics (analysts don’t have a tie to any outcome, in particular, like members of IT, sales, advertising, partnership, etc. teams do), we are in a very unique position to work with the vision-setting suite in developing a centralized accountability around compromise and superior operations.

Shaun White had to pull a 180 at some point. Today, he’s pulling double flip 720 tail grabs (yes, I completely made that up) because he’s been given the opportunity to grow his talent after he proved he could handle it. Red Bull built him a private half-pipe in the middle of the mountains, accessible only by private helicopter, just to give him space to grow his badassery. But it started with his first 180, which probably scared the shit out of him the first time he tried it.

Don’t be afraid of your 180. You might fall and bust your face on the half-pipe, but once you get it, the company will want to see what you can really do, and that will even amaze you.


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2 Comments

  1. Great post Evan. The other thing I’m looking forward to (that I believe is related here) is that we need to be willing to put our money (or, well, our paychecks) where our mouth is. By reacting to requests from people, we’re able to hide behind them! So-and-so product manager wants information, which they use to make a decision, and THEY stake their reputation on achieving a certain outcome.

    We hang out in the background without sticking our necks out on the line.

    I’m not saying analysts should necessarily become product managers, but if truly believe the data can help us solve problems, we should stand by those solutions.

    Posted January 17, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Permalink
  2. True, I don’t really see the point of using web analytics to prove an existing idea, which is how I see “insights” used in many places, and which is not the same as strategic involvement in realising a vision.

    I think there may be a lack of realisation that analysts are tied to a any one outcome. Even analysts themselves may not realise it. People become bogged down in the minutiae of a business and lose sight of the bigger picture, which is easier to do as a company grows larger.

    Posted January 18, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink