What does web analytics “create?”

I was doing my morning reading today and read Seth Godin’s most recent post “Who will say go?“. I think the post is different than the title may lead you to believe, but then again, I’m not a writer…

Please read that post before continuing with this one (it’ll take you about a minute to read).

OK, welcome back!

So, of course Seth said it better than I ever could, but I think this post and its theme are completely and utterly important to those in the web analytics industry.

We are, in so many ways, professionals at what Seth is talking about: we get paid to examine and provide feedback on others’ creations. Like Seth says, we have been, “…brainwashed into believing that [our] job is to copyedit the world, not to design it.” And it shouldn’t be a wonder that people feel upset, threatened, or personally attacked by our analysis, and in many cases, those who we analyze (since analyze sounds better than criticize) feel that since we are not creators, we are not qualified to criticize.

Well I’d argue back about whether or not we are creators.

In investing, there is a wonderful concept that addresses the value of portfolio managers and the like, lovingly known as “alpha.” Alpha describes the value that a fund manager, for example, adds over what we would expect as the norm; alpha explains the gap between their performance vs. others’ or how their timing and mix in the portfolio adds up to more than what the stocks would do on their own (I’m over-simplifying). In investing, alpha is what separates the ninjas from the green belts. You can extend the same concept to so many things: some people add that special something — that “X factor” — to what they do, creating things that are just better than you expected. They might not actually create anything (fund managers don’t create or run the businesses they invest in), but their presence creates a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.

What I’d argue is that we are alpha creators in our businesses. In a complex system of competing priorities, various specialists in IA, UX, SEO, SEM, development, marketing, design, etc., we can be the portfolio managers, helping the business prioritize its attention, investment, and complementary use of a whole buffet of tactics. The more successfully we help the business create the right recipe of strategies and tactics, the more successful (and operationally excellent) the business is capable of being.

I hear many analysts fall into the trap of thinking they are just there to fix or improve what other people make. While I think that can be true, I think what we need to really be focused on (and sell) is our ability to take a business that sometimes feels like the Tasmanian Devil and add data, insight, order, and confidence. Statisticians may describe the current process of managing collaboration and compromise on many of today’s web sites as a “random walk.” We have the power to take the randomness out of it, revealing the real-world implications and appropriate reactions to the vision and strategy set in the executive office.

The creators, as we see them today, are there to get us started. They give us our first push. But once we are underway, it’s analysts that need to do the steering. We can choose to let the strongest personalities do the steering, taking us in a zig-zag and backtracking, looping route, or we can keep the nose pointed toward our target, making small and purposeful adjustments as we go, and staying keenly aware of whether our original target is still our target today. One of those two routes gets us there more safely and quickly.

Time to start steering. Time to start creating. And don’t worry if you don’t create stuff. You create value.