Web analysts brought forth the flame of online behavioral analysis and fanned those flames into a brilliance that shines a light on customer insight. And then they became accountants.
Turns out, that's a very good thing for all of us.
I love to quote eBay analytics VP Bob Page. He was head of analytics at Yahoo! when I first heard him say "We are not accountants, we are statisticians." He then cemented his place in my memory with the punch line: "Statistics means never having to say you're certain".
Inspiring words for those of us trying with all our might to explain the unbelievable value of collecting online customer data and thinking about them in terms of probabilities. Bob was very clever, quite droll, but - as it turns out - not prophetic.
Those were the days when we "web analysts" were constantly asked for specific numbers. How many people? How many pages? How many qualifies leads?
The most cringe-worthy question we got was, "Can you give me a report that proves.....?" As Jennifer Veesenmeyer (@pimpyourreports) pointed out to me last week, there's no way to complete that question to make it anything but wrong.
This is the classic drunkard/lamppost problem. ("He uses statistic as a drunkard does a lamppost, for support rather than illumination").
In those days, we struggled to defend the accuracy of our data. (It ain't! Get over it!) We struggled with multiple tools giving us multiple answers. (They still do! Get over it!) We struggled convincing people that they could make business decisions even though we were a little squishy on accuracy and consistency.
And then the times changed and Bob Page was one of the people who shed some light on its direction. eBay depends on the numbers to be consistent so they can compare categories, so they standardized on the tools and the methods of data gathering and manipulation and so they can report properly to their shareholders.
As a result, they can compare and contrast across departments and over time. In this one regard, Bob has become an accountant. And he's not alone.
At MTV Networks, the research department reports up high. Shari Cleary, VP of Digital Media Research for Entertainment and Games at MTV Networks, delivers the numbers up the executive chain. There, they are used to evaluate the performance of each division and each program therein.
Keepers of the Faith
Down at the user-interface level - the awareness, acquisition, persuasion and conversion level - there are still people who specialize in multivariate testing and shopping cart abandonment reduction. They will always be needed and have always been in short supply. They deliver immediate results. They optimize the marketing spend.
But the other side of the house is dealing with the numbers that run the company.
Research In Motion's manager of digital analytics Simon Austin reports to finance. He reports his numbers in the same meetings along with revenue, expenses and human resources. He's suddenly getting the respect he never got as a web numbers jockey.
How do you rationalize these two disparate uses of the numbers we've been coddling like a prehistoric fire-keeper, desperate to keep the spark alive throughout the day in order to ignite the evening's blaze?
Think in terms of money. Accounting keeps track of the income and runs the company based on how well each team brings it revenue. Executives adjust expenditure levels and deliver budgets to managers to do with as they see fit.
Behavioral targeting, email retargeting and landing page optimization are the tools each department may use to try and improve the return on their marketing investment. But web traffic, qualified leads and sales are the scorecard.
So yes Mr. Page, we have become accountants. And I for one am damned glad you were elected to the Board of Directors of the Web Analytics Association - now you have the chance to be clever, droll and prophetic.