Putting a new lens on Web analytics
You can’t say this about too many markets these days, but Web analytics is booming. Forrester predicts that U.S. businesses will spend $431 million on Web analytics software this year, with the market reaching nearly $1 billion in 2014.
Publishers are no doubt responsible for a good chunk of this spending, investing in a variety of analytics “solutions” to capture ever-more-granular traffic and audience data. But is the money well spent?
Allow me a brief metaphor: Web analytics is a lot like landscaping. Give it the proper care and feeding and you’ll end up with a beautiful lawn and bountiful flora. Ignore it and you’ll end up with a messy weed patch, a lot of overgrown shrubbery, and a few dead spots.
For publishers, digital dead spots and virtual weed patches aren’t just unsightly; they’re bad for business. A poorly defined and executed Web analytics strategy can deliver as much damage as insights. Assuming there’s any strategy at all.
“A lot of companies started with tactics, not strategy,” says Eric Peterson, CEO and principal consultant of Web Analytics Demystified, a consultancy. “Maybe they made major investments in analytics six or seven years ago, got frustrated, switched vendors. Now they’re still frustrated. But if you’re not getting as much as you expected out of Web analytics, it’s probably not the technology – it’s probably you.”
Measuring what you can, instead of what you should
Part of the problem is that the technology has outpaced publishers’ grasp of the issues around Web measurement. Because Web activity is so measurable, and because metrics tools and techniques have proliferated so rapidly, many media companies have plunged headlong into measuring everything they can instead of focusing on the key metrics that can actually help them to grow their digital business.
“As our ability to measure more things has increased, it’s become more complex,” says Chad Greenleaf, who manages media consulting for Web analytics vendor Omniture. “More choices for media companies tend to create a little bit of confusion about what to focus on to cut through the clutter and drive the business.”
The technology itself is not the issue. Many media companies have been hesitant to put the resources and support behind in-house Web analytics teams that can define and execute a successful Web analytics strategy.
“The most common mistake media companies make is not resourcing for digital measurement,” says Peterson. “They try to get by with just the tools, but not the expertise to run those tools.”
Justifying Web analytics investments
This mindset is beginning to change. As digital becomes a bigger part of a publisher’s playbook, management teams will need to take a harder look at their Web analytics efforts – not just what they’re measuring, but the return they’re getting on those technology investments.
“A lot of management teams are saying, ‘We don’t care how many page views or unique visitors there are – we’re not spending money on this idea unless we know how much money it will make us or save us,’” says Alex Yoder, CEO of Web analytics vendor Webtrends.
There’s also more pressure from external forces, especially advertisers, who are looking for publishers to improve their methods for defining and delivering a quality audience. Advertisers are becoming less enamored with specific media brands and more focused on finding their target segments wherever they reside.
“There will always be advertisers that want to be integrated with particular sites,” says Adam Gerber, chief marketing officer of Web analytics vendor Quantcast. “But you’re seeing the buy side focus more on audience, not necessarily environment. And you’re seeing a move toward real-time bidding and networks – that’s a function of the buy side wanting more scalable ways to buy audiences.”
How do eMedia companies continue to attract both the audience and the advertisers to their site in sufficient scale to drive profitable growth? Here’s some advice from the experts on developing a successful approach to Web metrics and measurement.
Determining the objective
For years, audience development managers, webmasters, producers and editors have been using analytics tools to produce a steady variety of reports that may or not have any direct bearing on the business. Can these ad hoc pockets of reporting be reigned in under a coherent strategy? Publishers had better hope so.
“The first step is to understand the business objectives,” says Greenleaf. “From there you can define the drivers to get to that goal, the levers you need to pull, and the metrics that will show whether you’re moving the needle or if you need to adjust.”
Adjustment really is the key to any Web analytics strategy – the constant fine-tuning and optimizing required to deliver just the right content or advertising to the reader at just the right moment.
“It’s about continuous optimization,” says Boaz Ronkin, senior product marketing manager at Web analytics vendor Coremetrics. “You start with a specific set of metrics, ask the hard questions, and if you don’t get the right answers, you look at different metrics and ask again.”
Is your main goal to optimize content for your visitors? To define a higher-quality audience for advertisers? Each requires a different approach, and different tools.
Content management on the Web has become a never-ending game of acting and reacting to visitor engagement with your website. The current emphasis of many vendors is on real-time monitoring – providing instant feedback on how users are interacting with content and making changes on the fly to drive more views and a better user experience.
Coremetrics, for example, offers a real-time dashboard that lets editors track performance of individual articles, site sections, or topics down to an increasingly detailed level. “Our clients have told us they want a lot more granular information to understand reader preferences,” says Ronkin. Editors can define up to 15 parameters for analysis, including author, topic, data created, along with user interactions such as rating an article. They can also track whether articles are being read in full or being abandoned on a jump.
Similarly, Omniture’s Test&Target product lets analysts test content based on a variety of engagement factors, such as page count and time on site, using traditional A/B or multivariate testing to determine the right combinations of articles, sections and layouts. “Real-time capabilities are critical because customers are looking at how content is moving the needle right now,” says Greenleaf. “In an ad-supported medium, they need to make those decisions quickly.”
Defining the audience
Real-time capabilities also play an increasingly important role in audience measurement. “Publishers have to organize audiences the way marketers want to buy them,” says Quantcast’s Gerber. “They need to package inventory in real time to align with the target audiences their advertisers want.”
Those target audiences are defined by more than just demographic information, requiring analytics tools to become more sophisticated in identifying site visitors.
“It’s one thing to know that an audience composition is 70 percent male and 30 percent female,” says Gerber. “But that’s not how media buyers are buying inventory. They’re buying subsets of that.”
For B2B publishers, audience measurement comes down to two words: lead generation. Companies like DemandBase are focusing their efforts on analytics to help B2B publishers demonstrate the quality of their audience to advertisers. DemandBase has developed a proprietary back-end data platform that maps IP address to specific companies, industries, revenues, even office locations.
“Most geo-location services look at where the server is located,” says DemandBase CEO Chris Golec. “We’re mapping to the physical business office. In the B2B world, you care less about the city and more about the size of the company.”
What lies ahead
Where are Web analytics headed? Webtrends’ Yoder sees digital metrics evolving into a broader category of “customer intelligence.”
“Being able to actually tie in voice of the customer, not only onsite but offsite, is critical,” he says. “We’re not moving away from mass-market analytics, but the future is in enabling easy conversations or interaction with specific individuals.”
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