Monday, May 17, 2010

Forget web analytics – being a web analyst is hard

I have been stewing all week over a great blog post I read by Evan LaPointe, a digital marketer out of Atlanta. The post was entitled “I don’t want an analytics job”, and it seems to carry over the same feelings and themes of an earlier post he wrote called “Web Analytics Sucks, and it’s nobody’s fault.”

These posts both excited and annoyed me at the same time.

On one hand, it was almost liberating to read that someone is living in the same trenches that we are at Napkyn. A lot of the points of frustration that Evan talks about – like navigating both internal politics and sub-par data as well as having the role of web analyst considered a low-level technical job rather than a high level executive job – hearing someone else say this stuff will make any analyst grin and buy in. It’s like reading a good Dilbert cartoon and thinking “Hey, that is SO where I work!” - it’s cathartic, but not productive.

Hence my annoyance. Evan touches on all the challenges with being an analyst, and outlines all the skills (data analysis) and opinions (Always Be Testing) that good analysts bring to the table. But his conclusion is that good web analysts don’t actually want to be web analysts, they just represent the next generation of executives-in-waiting – web analysis is beneath them. He says that web analytics actually want to be the ‘shepherds’ of a business, who use data to help guide the organization to ongoing successes. There’s already a job title for that – it’s a CIO.

So while I totally agree with the sentiments, I thought I would share my thoughts on what the real issue is.

Being a Web Analyst is hard.

I don’t want to reopen the whole “Web Analytics is Easy/Hard” debate, but I do want to agree with and elaborate on Evan’s key points.

Most organizations aren’t ready for information based decision-making, and while many firms know that analysis brings results, they do assume that an analyst will generate a ‘magic report’ rather than help move the business forward over time. This is frustrating, and it takes a lot of patience, diligence, and small wins to earn the right to change this perception. With every client we work with, this process takes time, and it always pays off.

Very few tools play well together in the digital sandbox. In a lot of cases, it would be easier if certain kinds of technology didn’t exist – their standalong datasets add zero value unless a ton of work is thrown at them to make them align with corporate data (pay for performance vendors and dynamic CMS systems come to mind immediately here). It’s awfully hard to internally sell the value of analysis if you spend half your time talking about what you can’t see clearly because of technology/disparate data issues. Tools vendors make analysts look bad.

I don’t think that most web analytics practitioners secretly wish they were a CIO. A lot of us live for that ‘eureka’ moment that happens when you uncover amazing insight about the business, or implement a small change that immediately creates a big impact. There’s a big difference between someone who love continuous improvement and someone who wants to run the whole business.

Just because it is hard to be a web analyst right now doesn’t mean that it will be forever. As more of us start to organically change the culture of the organizations we are in, performance management and analysis will start to trump “I think, I feel, I want” and we will get better seats at the table. These information oriented organizations will refuse to accept the vendor data shenanigans and we will get better and easier visibility into the entirety of the digital data.

I for one, love having my web analytics job. It’s not always easy, but panning for gold in the digital wild west has a lot of payoffs that make the frustration worth the while.



P.S. Evan, keep up the great writing and if you ever decide to move to Ottawa I have a job for you – we can work together to come up with the right title ;)


evan said...

Thanks for the follow-up post.

I have to think we're going to agree to disagree on the subtleties of this, but we do agree on the big picture -- like two versions of a single religion.

I think that you're buying into the current construct of the world a bit too much in some of your assessment. My conclusions assume evolution and new jobs/descriptions, not eventualities of current trajectories in this same system. We are young (as both businesses and people) and all new at this, and it will change a lot in the next 5 years. We need to "shepherd" this change, also, so it happens correctly, rather than assuming that this job is a CIO (which I disagree with -- the CIO is not a resource allocator). The greatest outcome of web analytics is a more efficient business and resource allocation process, not just web tactics, business tactics, information, or the application of information. In fact, some of the best CEOs and CFOs I work with are web analytics junkies, and they celebrate its efficacy in their real-world business activities, in addition to its value for execution on tactics.

My point is that we all DO believe that the current definition of web analytics jobs is beneath us, because it is. Not because of what we do, but because of the ownership of results and the fact that we don't shepherd, we give suggestions and watch others execute. That's no fun at all, and it sure isn't helping us get better at our jobs, because we don't get our hands as dirty as we need to.

On to playing devil's advocate: if the post was cathartic rather than productive, why did you feel compelled to think about it and write this? As you well know (and elaborated on above), this is difficult and complex process, and specific to each client/business. Is there a "rule of thumb" or a set of steps that we can apply? No. We have to get people thinking, just the way you are. Hopefully this post and thought process will spur some good conversations with your clients. I'd call that productive.

I'd love it if you'd comment on AA and link over to this post. I think it's a great post, but I do think you could elaborate and expand on people's work without undermining it in this way. We are guilty of creating ladder-rungs out of other people's work in this industry, and we're all tired of other people grasping and stepping on us. It's productive and counterproductive at the same time (we've all watched the Kaushik/Peterson version in the past, and it just confuses the consumers of our services). We should try to say "great work, and let's think about this too," rather than, "nice try, but watch this."


The Napkyn Team said...

(Below is a repost of the comment I dropped on Evan's blog. As we get this dialog going, it really makes me wonder how different the experiences are between an SMB and an Enterprise analyst. I hope this comment removes any confusion about my tone - I am not a huge fan of how argumentative our industry can be sometimes and certainly don't want to contribute to more of it. In fact, perfect world here would be more people jumping on the thread to talk about the current role of the analyst in their respective organization, and how they feel it should evolve)

Hi Evan,

You're a quick draw - you commented on my response to this post before I could put the link up here!

I got the vibe from your comment that you feel that I am throwing darts at your post, and that couldn't be farther from the case; the posts you have written on the role of the analyst have been fantastic. I actually made the point of referencing the 'analytics is easy/hard' debate to make the point that I wanted to contribute to the great points you discuss here rather than start a traditional WA blog battle (the divisiveness in our small industry deserves some attention of it's own)

It’s actually this whole concept of divisiveness that got me thinking about your post, and then writing about it. It seems like every few days there is a new vendor coming out saying that their product is ‘better than’ a web analytics tool, even though it is simply a new dataset for an analyst to use along with traditional clickstream. There are new concepts around how to do analysis competing for mindshare daily as well. With all these tools and tips competing against each other at the speed of twitter, it’s almost impossible for new or experienced analysts to sit back and look at the big picture of “What do I do and how should I do it?”.

As I mentioned in my post (, we agree on 90% of the evolution of the role of the web analyst, but the last 10% makes for an interesting discussion. As the president of a managed web analysis firm, we embed full time analysts into online retailers to help them make better decisions by better understanding their data. With every new customer, we face the same challenges outlined in your blog, but have a process in place to earn the right to evolve report fulfillment into targeted strategy and then digital project management. Ultimately these are all components of the role of a good analyst.

When I am at the pub talking with other analysts, the discussion invariably goes towards the standard challenges we all face in getting our respective “I feel, I think, I hope” decisionmakers to buy into information based decisionmaking, with all the data we can squeeze out of the disparate toolsets we are given. The post you wrote is the best I have read yet on what those challenges are.

I think you hit the nail on the head in your comment on the Napkyn blog: My post was about talking about making things work better and evolve with the current landscape, and yours was on how things should evolve for best use of the analyst and best impact on the business.

I would love to hear more about your experiences, as ours are based on working exclusively with retailers and B2B firms in the mid-market. Based on your background, it looks like your experience is more at the enterprise end of the scale. Perhaps the interesting point that we are making together is that the experience of the SMB analyst is completely different from the Enterprise analyst. Might be worth elaborating on in a joint post sometime.

Thanks again for the great post, it’s rare to read something that gets me so excited I turn off Excel for a few minutes to talk about it.



Stephane Hamel at said...

He! he! Seeing we're not alone and sharing the pain is already a good step toward therapy :)

Seriously, I think it's refreshing to have a little conversation going on and different point of views being expressed. I think it's perfectly fine that our job isn't always easy - that's what makes it more interesting and rewarding! My hope is that we eventually get over what should be trivial and raise the bar so we can bring increased value to the organisation.


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