Is web analytics an art or a science? Is it primarily a creative or a methodical endeavour? Is it left-brain or right-brain?
Or, is it both? Does it rely on some kind of balance between the two?
I initially started pondering this after reading Steve Jackson’s Cult of Analytics. The book primarily describes an organisational structure and process that can be used to put web analytics at the heart of an organisation. However, it goes much further than this in that it attempts to create an intensely rigorous system of scorecards that can be used to police the delivery of this framework. I also noticed similar thinking in Akin Arikan’s recent call to create an expert system for web analytics, which argues that web analytics should operate much like the field of medicine or mechanics, with concrete processes followed to the letter.
I can certainly see where they are both coming from, but something about this whole thing just makes me feel really uncomfortable. It is undeniable that web analytics is a form of science and computing (it’s got the word ‘analytics’ in it for a start!), but something inside me constantly cries out “no, there’s more to it than that, web analytics is about creativity and intuition and sales and the passion for opportunity!”. You might need the science and the tech in order to understand what’s happening, but can this ever really tell you what to do next? Doesn’t this require a fundamental and intrinsic understanding of business strategy that can’t be reduced to statistics and data; or made into some kind of rules-based process?
But if this is true, and web analytics is a balance between science and art; analysis and intuition – then today the field seems woefully lacking in the art and intuition. But why is this?
Web analytics has a ‘tech’ heritage, but does this fit?
Web analytics originally ‘emerged’ from the field of IT, and was later integrated with the field of business intelligence. This produced a group of people with a huge amount of technical and analytical knowledge, but their role is to report things to other people. They don’t typically get involved with what that information is used for.
But web analytics IS the use of the information. You can’t divorce the information from what it needs to be used for. Anyone who has witnessed first hand an organisation where reporting is handled by IT and optimisation by marketing will know exactly how disastrous this can be. Separating the two creates an uncrossable chasm in the middle. You either need one person with both skill sets (unfortunately quite rare), or a well managed team with both camps working together.
Web analysis is not the same as traditional data analysis
The word ‘analysis’ in web analysis persuades most companies that they should fill their senior web analyst positions with hardcore data analysts. Some companies even go as far as employing people who have previously been analysing things like meteorological or geological data sets. However, whilst it is important to have at least some hardcore stats knowledge in a team, it isn’t necessary at the senior level.
Web analytics tools are easy to use, at least from a functionality perspective. The vast majority of the stats and number crunching has already been done by the software. Anyone who has crossed over from using something like SAS to something like Site Catalyst will understand this. It isn’t analysis in the same sense; it’s report viewing – so the ‘analysis’ is in fact the interpretation and translation of the reports into action, which starts to get much closer to marketing and general business performance than any kind of traditional analysis.
People only see the means, not the end
If someone came to your house to sell you double-glazing and spent an hour showing you the tools they planned to use, and talked about how the plastic was manufactured, you wouldn’t buy the windows! If, on the other hand, they talked to you about the reduction in noise, the increased warmth and the lower fuel bills that you would get, then you would be more interested, right?
For some reason, we have an endemic problem in this industry whereby people obsess over the analysis and data, and not the benefits of the analysis. This results in a perception of web analytics as boring and difficult to understand. If you are presenting recommendations of analysis to senior management, do you really even need to show the analysis? Web analytics is decision support, not a sleep-aid!
The problem then it seems, is that you often have senior people who are too scientific in their approach and lack the spark of commercial intuition and business acumen that can drive truly actionable analytics. This was less of a problem in the old days of data analysis for direct marketing because there were clearly defined process frameworks through which marketing folk could receive standard reports and make decisions based on those reports – but, and here’s the crucial point, there isn’t really anything standard about digital marketing!
I have always said that, one day fairly soon, the word digital will cease to exist; it’s a term used to describe the fact that some things are analogue and other things are digital, but already there isn’t so much left that can reasonably be called analogue. Therefore, if digital marketing simply becomes marketing, and digital business simply becomes business, and these things are as data-driven as we all hope they will be, then ‘analytics’ is a huge central discipline to an entire business operation – to reduce it as a discipline to a fixed process is like trying to create a fixed process for all aspects of the management of a business. Is this possible and, even if it were, is it not suffocating to the organic growth and development of the business?
On a final note, I was curious to see that Avinash Kaushik’s new book, which I haven’t actually read yet, holds the strap-line “The Art of Online Accountability and Science of Customer Centricity” – I wonder what, if anything, he has in store for us on this question?