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.