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Make measurements meaningful: How to create an actionable web analytics strategy

7th Feb 2013
Managing editor MyCustomer.com
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A team of experts provide a comprehensive guide to building a web analytics strategy.

Developing an actionable web analytics strategy is easier said than done. Even if a business has the inclination to knuckle down and develop a strategy, it can easily become disorientated by the mass of metrics churned out by its analytics tools.
And of course many businesses don’t even have the inclination to try in the first place – a surprising number of businesses today do not have an actionable web analytics strategy in place. But this will inevitably cause problems further down the line.
“It is very common to see a reactive approach to web analytics due to lack of upfront strategy – setting up relevant goals, custom metrics, etc., well after a campaign has gone live. This results in a data-gap that can have serious repercussions on campaign evaluation and optimisation,” says Carl Fernandes, head of analytics and conversion optimisation at iProspect.
He continues: “Businesses that invest in strategy will be able to tie website performance back to revenue. This is extremely important when justifying budgets for new website features, content development, SEO and other channels that are often only tracked using web analytics and not ad serving technologies.”
Web analytics strategy is the art of combining statistical analysis of your website performance with measurable methods for improving it. But while most companies use statistical measurement tools for their website (most commonly Google Analytics), how many actually focus on using this data to develop a strategy – and how many of those who do, do it well? Not many, according to Victoria Petkovic-Short, marketing account manager at APT.
She believes companies commonly do one of three things.
  1. Some will ignore the statistics 99% of the time, checking on an adhoc basis for obvious changes in statistics, e.g. downward visitor trends, upward spikes, etc.
  2. Many companies act first, then plan later; they decide on their marketing strategy, approach and execution external to the statistics, then evaluate the effectiveness after the action. What they don’t do is analyse the statistics first, evaluate what is needed from their website and then develop a campaign that accounts for these needs as well as the strategic business developments
  3. Most will focus on the wrong statistics, e.g. visitor numbers to develop their strategy. High visitor numbers do not signify a good website performance, they are simply an indication that you’re on and offline campaigns are working, or that your SEO is good. It does not mean that users are having a good website experience.
“Creating a good web analytics strategy comes down to looking at the right statistics; website performance extends beyond the number of hits or unique visitors, to a more in-depth study of trends, number of returning visitors, bounce rates, user navigation analysis, traffic sources, active user locations and platform,” says Petkovic-Short. “It might sound daunting, but done properly, these statistics should be the basis for all your web-related activity.”
So where do you start?
The first step is to consider your overall business objectives and identify clear goals for each of these objectives. Before you start your strategy, work without the data and work out what you want from your website, what you need from it and how you are going to measure it.
“Each goal should be aligned with at least one KPI (metric),” says Axelle Ros, conversion analytics consultant at search, conversion & social media agency, DBD Media. “Finally, parameters need to be set to put each metric in context.  One of the most common mistakes when looking at analytics data is not putting the metrics into context. A 60% site-wide bounce rate does not give any real  insight into website performance.  Bounce rate at a landing page/keyword/traffic channel level, however, will help you understand visitor expectations and whether your site is meeting or failing them.”
Petkovic-Short provides some examples of how to work with the raw figures within the context of your business once you have outlined your objectives, goals and measures.
“If your company objective is profile exposure, your target is to ensure that organic visits (referrals and searches) are high and that the bounce rates are low; if your company objective is online sales not only will these statistics be important, but so will the way a consumer navigates through the site – do they consistently exit from the basket, do they leave after a search, etc.?” she says. “Each individual measure and statistic tells a story and each one can be tweaked, tested and enhanced to offer both a better user experience AND a better company asset.” 
A recommended approach is to define an actionable “KPI Framework” in the early stages of any project and ensure that all measures can be tracked effectively. This framework can take the format of a simple spreadsheet or a more advanced online dashboard. It’s important to avoid “information overload” and focus on which metrics matter most (and are actionable). There is no sense creating dashboards that focus on metrics that cannot inform optimisation strategy.
“Web analytics should be considered a means to an end – you require these technologies as they help improve business performance,” emphasises Fernandes. “Understanding that revenue can be tied back to website engagement is what triggers the desire to implement web analytics.”
After defining business objectives / a high level KPI framework, he then recommends asking the following questions:
  • Who is championing web analytics within the business? “A positive first step is to define upfront who “owns” web analytics within the organisation. Having someone responsible for the successful deployment of analytics technology as well as a ‘KPI framework’ will reap rewards later on,” says Fernandes.
  • What technology do we need? “I always recommend focusing on ‘people’ over ‘technology’, but businesses have different requirements and some technologies are more appropriate than others for tracking certain KPIs.For example, financial services brands are often uncomfortable using Google Analytics due to their data being hosted on Google servers.”
  • How will this impact other teams/workstreams? “Businesses often have one team managing media budgets and a separate team/person handling web analytics. I have seen many cases where web analytics tools have not been setup to track display campaigns, paid search and other channels due to a lack of communication / understanding. Understanding upfront which stakeholders need to be involved with the web analytics strategy will definitely save time later on.”

So how do you create a good actionable web analytics strategy?

Petkovic-Short advises that organisations acclimatise themselves with the tracking tool, so that navigation becomes quick and easy – there are plenty of online tutorials to use – and then begin looking at the general trends associated with these statistics. She provides the following pieces of advice:
  • Know your trends - All statistics tools give you the opportunity to change your date range and compare two dates or two statistics. Start by looking at recent stats (i.e. the last three months), identify the trends (e.g. peak in the middle of the month, near payday etc.), then change the date to see if this is consistent across the year. Once you’ve confirmed this trend annually, or identified variable trends according to the season for example, compare these with the previous 12 months to see if they are the same year on year.The more / longer the statistics are available for, the better your chances of developing a strong strategy and the more likely you are to be accurate. That said, companies without access to this length of statistics should not fret, because trends will still be noticeable. A word of caution though; the less data you have available, the more chance there is of identifying a short-term trend and therefore, the less emphasis should be placed on each; instead, ensure that you revisit your strategy once a month to check it is on track and tweak it for any new emerging trends.
  • Measure your campaigns - The problem with website statistics is a lack of purity; you can’t put all your marketing and business activity on hold in order to ascertain what statistics are website-driven and which come from your campaigns – this is impractical and unadvisable. Instead, you have to work the other way by manipulating the campaigns to suit being measured. Think about your activity - is there the option to include a measurable code (e.g. promotional offer, or a bespoke URL specific to that campaign)? Adding these measures will enable you to measure the effect of specific campaigns on your website stats, giving you an indication of why users are visiting your site, as well as enabling you to measure the ‘pure’ website statistics that have no obvious origin. As a little extra tip, most analytics tools also allow you to ‘annotate’ your statistics, adding relevant notes directly to the graph. Use this to add updates about your campaigns - e.g. ‘sent monthly newsletter’, ‘advertised in XX publication’, ‘received 20 new business calls this week’ - which will all help to generate an anecdotal picture of your activity too.
  • Develop your recommendations - Just because there is an obvious trend, e.g. a consistently top exit page, it does not mean it needs fixing. I’ve had clients in the past tell me they ‘don’t want exit pages’, but like it or not, people have to exit your site. Your recommendations should always be based on context and you should review the statistics in line with the pages. Taking your top exit page as an example, the question isn’t where they are exiting, it is are they exiting in the right place? If you are an online retailer, you expect your customers to exit after the checkout; they have done their shopping and are ready to leave. If however, they are exiting from the basket, this indicates that there is a problem with the customer journey. For instance, is your checkout simple enough? The same applies to any other exit page; if they are exiting from a page that offers a link to an external site for example, test that link and make sure it is opening in a new window. Putting each statistic in perspective provides an opportunity to make a small tweak and see what happens. If the change is a large one and requires some additional programming, ask your developers to retain the previous system / process / pages, make the amend and measure the affect. If the performance is better, go with the new one, if it is worse, switch it back and work out how else to tweak it. If in doubt, talk to a third party; ask them to test your website and identify any problems they feel, talk to them about your suggested changes and see what they think. This isn’t an exact science because each person is different, but sometimes it helps to get an outside perspective.
  • Execute your changes - Don’t make all your changes at once; chances are if you are at the stage where you can develop a strategy like this which makes small changes, you have the time to amend things gradually. Make each step individually, measure the effects and check the relevance of your strategy before you make the next one. Sometimes changes will have unexpected affects that negate your existing strategy and probably create new points.
  • Remember to keep updating - It might seem like a slog, but the best website analytics strategy is one that evolves with the company and with the current trends. Try to revisit your strategy at least once a quarter to check it is still relevant and to ensure any changes you have made to the website are still positive ones.
  • Compare it across platforms - In the current digital age, no website works in isolation and companies can and should be using multiple digital platforms to deliver their content to the market. Whilst this is great for driving web traffic, many clients often forget to compare statistics across their activity. For example, identify trends in your newsletter schedule; does sending day or time affect the open rate and if so, when is it highest? Combine this knowledge with your web statistics analysis to ensure that all your campaigns are maximising your website potential, as well as ensuring your website is maximising your campaigns. This kind of cross-platform analysis is more advanced, but it can have measurable results for your ROI. For our clients, we have taken this one step further and developed an additional tracking tool; used to anonymously record user activity beyond your site, the tool legally tracks your visitors from and too their immediate destinations. This enables clients to identify how many of their customers are shopping around and which of their competitors have the biggest market share. Tools like these are great for giving you the edge and it’s worth shopping around to see what other statistics can be at your fingertips.
In addition to these comprehensive guidelines, Fernandes recommends making a checklist of the following tasks, which he believes constitute the five key aspects to a successful web analytics strategy. “Focus on each of these will lead to significant performance improvements – whatever the KPI might be,” he says.
  • Core web analytics requirements - Core web analytics requirements consist of the groundwork in creating a framework, as described above. Ensuring business objectives and website KPIs are aligned, picking the right technology partner and engaging relevant stakeholders within the company are fundamental steps to kicking off a successful strategy.
  • BAU reporting, analysis & action - Generally speaking, reporting is an easy task and the real challenge is turning dashboards, reports and metrics into actionable insight. Ensuring a process is in place that allows for continued analysis and provision of realistic actions is important. Many businesses are very strong in reporting, but lack the wider commercial awareness to develop actionable recommendations. For example, it’s very rare to see a web analyst that has a solid understanding of display advertising and as such their ability to provide tangible recommendations is limited. This is why engagement with other stakeholders in the business is incredibly important.
  • Tactical analysis - Web analytics can be used reactively as a tool to provide answers to questions brought up over the course of a campaign. Ensuring there is flexible resource available to deal with ad-hoc queries as well as technical web analytics implementation will help engage people throughout the business with web analytics and lead to better results.
  • Innovation & new technologies - This area is often overlooked. Web analytics is a growth area and as such there are always new technologies being developed that can be used to supplement a generic web analytics setup. Online surveys, heatmapping, eye tracking and advanced segmentation tools are just some of the areas that can be deployed. Focus on both the qualitative and quantitative aspects of web analysis as both can provide rich insights into how visitors are engaging with a web property. The majority of web analytics solutions also have APIs available that can be leveraged by developers to create new and exciting solutions.
  • Optimisation - A process should be in place to immediately leverage web analytics data to improve performance. This may take the form of website conversion optimisation, suggestions on how media budget should be spent or even recommendations on how media campaigns can be optimised.The advent of optimisation technologies such as Optimizely, Visual Website Optimizer and features such as Google Analytics remarketing that allows remarketing lists to be created based on analytics data means that implementing changes to a campaign can be done quickly and cost effectively.  
  •  
Companies don’t necessarily need digital experience to execute these kinds of campaigns. By learning about the tools, applying common sense, and with trial and error, organisations can go a long way. Of course, if this doesn’t appeal, there is also the option to hire a consultant to develop a strategy that can be managed in-house and revisited by the consultant once a year to keep on track. “It’s an important tool in the toolkit and one that is so commonly overlooked,” notes Petkovic-Short.
So, building a web analytics strategy – certainly easier said than done. But definitely worth the effort in the long run.
“Web analytics should be seen as a major part of the information system by which you run your business. Unless your business changes fundamentally, a solid web analytics strategy will last a long time,” concludes Ben Gott, head of analytics at Periscopix. “Of course it will need to be updated as new technologies crop up, but the core measurements you map out today are likely to still be correct this time next year and the one after. It makes sense to take the long view when thinking about web analytics, otherwise you will be forever chasing the latest fad or buzzword.”
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