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What has the commoditisation of web analytics meant for marketing?

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23rd Nov 2015
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As businesses become all the more led by the technology they use, web analytics tools have enjoyed a transition into ‘must-have’ territory, operating as the first port-of-call for the monitoring of a company’s online portfolio.

Today, web analytics has become “a commodity,” states Axel Schaefer, senior manager, product and industry marketing EMEA at Adobe Systems. Simply put, web analytics is a table stake these days – you have to use it merely to be able to compete. It’s the HOW you use it that can give you an advantage.

Modern-day tools can be used to pinpoint how people are coming into contact with a business, what they’re doing when the first and last interaction is made, and, if they didn’t go on to convert, the reasons they might have for doing so.

With so many business decisions now being underpinned by data, there is a greater need for CMOs and their employers to learn more about the people they sell to, which makes the insights produced by analytics all the more useful. This information can also be used to interpret where and how people interact with a business, performed with the end goal of improving the experience and service on offer.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, web analytics is the foundation of digital marketing strategies, enabling users to establish who is visiting your site, how they found it, what they’re doing when they get there and provide insight to support the improvement of the user experience.

When digital marketing strategies are scratching around to identify the metrics that will drive improvements in the overall customer experience to ensure that the organisation will drive more business, it is web analytics that provides the guidance.

Statistics underline its importance – with a survey of 300 digital marketers by MillwardBrown revealing that 46% of respondents said they planned to investment more in web analytics in the coming year. Furthermore, the same study found that web/mobile analytics software was the second biggest priority for investment in the next two years (customer experience management software being the first).

And it is not only business performance concerns that are driving this investment. Big Data is no longer a fad, or a big bad that businesses are afraid of. Now it is something organisations understand is there to be harnessed. MillwardBrown’s study indicates that over half (54%) of marketers rank Big Data as an important trend. Analytics, of course, is the key to capitalising on Big Data.

The ability of web analytics to influence so many aspects of online improvement has been one of the driving forces behind data’s launch into the modern-day marketer’s vocabulary, and with analytics users ranging from businesses at the top of their game, right across to those just starting out, the real challenge is to make the most of the information at hand.

Analytics the commodity

One of the most basic uses of tools for monitoring web-based activity is in assessing where users are first introduced to a business, with this helping determine the areas which need the most attention. Delving deeper, the technology can lift valuable insights from the crowds that arrive, giving businesses a bank full of data on their potential customers and a reason to cater for certain audience demographics.

Marketers have certainly benefited from this practice becoming more accepted as their ability to track returns from channels like email, social and display is made easier. But the applications of analytics continues to evolve.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes in the use of analytics has come in what it is applied to, and from the realisation that what it produces can be used to monitor and improve a customer’s journey around the web. The ‘single customer view’, for instance, has become The Holy Grail for enterprises that urgently want to provide a joined-up experience to consumers, and of course analytics is at the core of this conversation

Schaefer notes: “Today, brands big and small are trying to follow their visitors across as many digital channels as possible. The goal is to understand a behavioural pattern and the journey of a visitor, or future customer, across all channels in order to improve and optimise their experience.”

Another change in analytics usage relates to the 5.2 billion mobile users, as estimated by Mary Meeker, who have seen their interest from web analysts grow exponentially in recent years. This trend coincides with the spike in usage of smartphones and tablets for initial product research, and with Google claiming to fulfil more searches on mobile devices than desktop, analysts are being urged to act on the findings.

In the grand scheme of things, the growth in mobile traffic along with a greater use of first and third-party data means there is a huge demand for systems that join and contextualise everything being gathered.

“The ability to join up data across channels to assess overall performance metrics is key to driving growth for any business, and there is less focus on ‘this channel versus that channel’ and more attention on where to drive incremental growth at a cost-effective level,” highlights Colin Smith, a data scientist at UK digital agency agenda21.  

With so much of the purchase journey now taking place online, a panoramic view of the customer is one of the best things that analytics can deliver at the company’s door.

Key considerations

The sheer breadth of information gleaned by analytics tools and the capabilities in 2015 being so much greater than they were in 2010, or any year before, has only amplified the need to have a clear plan for their use - a quality advocated by those behind the controls.

“The worse brief in the world is ‘we need to understand our customers’,” states Smith. “You need to work out what you can do, what changes you can make, what decisions you need to take, and then define the data you need to inform those decisions. At that point you should go and collect it and analyse with a clear goal in mind.”

Web analytics is also being pressed harder for a return than it may have done some five or ten years ago. The testing phase is well and truly over, with businesses now wanting to see the ROI to justify their investments of time and money.

“If you are not measuring your return then you cannot attribute a true value to your web analytics tools,” outlines Don Skinner, director of digital at UK marketing agency Net Natives. “The challenge is that there will be a wide range of factors that can affect your ROI and it is likely that it is the combination of data from multiple analytical and technological platforms that give you this figure.”

Skinner sees plenty of value in companies having a champion that can explain in layman’s terms the need for the measurement of a tool’s performance and return, but finding qualified and capable specialists creates another issue.

The shortage of web analytics talent has been a chief concern for a number of years, threatening to undermine business efforts to harness Big Data. Figures from the Office for National Statistics has estimated that half of UK businesses were planning to expand their ecommerce departments in 2015, meaning web analysts were further in demand.

“Businesses have been faced with an IT and ecommerce skill shortage for a while, specifically when it comes to finding specialist web analysts," Lisa Holmes, director at recruitment company Uniting Ambition, has noted. “There are a lot of people out there that are Google Analytics and Tealeaf qualified; but a lot of the time, this isn’t enough. Businesses are desperate for specialists with great mathematical skills, strong business acumen and a real understanding of their customer.”

Little surprise then, that the Online Marketing Institute has estimated that 37% of companies “desperately need” staff with analytics skills. The digital skills gap is of course alive and well in a range of countries, affecting a number of industries, and bringing forward the next generation of talent will be crucial to realising so many of the opportunities that technology can and will create.

But analytics success also rests heavily on leadership support from within the organisation. Research from analysts BARC reveals the extent to which data analytics can thrive or die according to how much impetus is being driven directly from senior leaders. The survey of 500+ enterprise professionals found that 61% of successful “data use cases” are attributed to management teams having a direct role in integrating data and analytics tools into business-wide process.

The importance of management support is two-fold – not only is it key to securing budget and resources, but it also helps the organisation enshrine the discipline in a more strategic model. While there is a place for tactical ad hoc reporting, this needs to be part of a wider strategic approach to optimise analytics. Unfortunately, the BARC study reveals that analytics strategies are few and far between.

The results state that at present, 25% of businesses have a data analysis strategy for their marketing teams, and 23% for sales. However, 54% of companies plan to introduce further data analysis into their marketing and sales strategies in the future, though as it becomes a more integral part of business.

Having senior management on board is vital to a more strategic approach, which in turn is vital to having clear and focused goals for analytics, and what they can deliver to the business.

Looking forward

With analytics now a luxury afforded to businesses big and small, the overarching challenge for these outfits will be to make good use of the technology in front of them. Part of this involves making strides with metrics which are likely to result in more long-term benefits than simply focusing on an increase in conversions in September, followed by a lift in traffic for October.

Any business can incentivise a customer in order to drive a specific outcome; the real challenge is in getting them to convert, check in, engage and share messages without being prompted.

Using analytics to uncover valuable information about a customer’s experience, their route to acquisition, their reasons for abandoning purchases and other matters can lay the foundations for improvement in these areas, which can equate to loyalty in some circumstances.

With more and more emphasis being placed on learning more about the customer and what makes them tick, Schaefer sees web analytics as the basis for data-driven marketing initiatives, arguing that companies “will not be able to market to their customer efficiently” without a solid understand of how these tools work.

Challenges may be engulfing the analysis of web-based activity in 2015. But when considering the benefits this can bring, they’re more than worth scaling.

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