Understanding Your Audience Online

  |  October 6, 2009   |  Comments

Web analytics data is only one of many pieces needed to understand your audience. Here's a look at other data needed to improve Web site and business performance.

To date there has been a lot of attention give to using Web analytics data to understand site performance. You can use these data to understand your visitors and look for ways to improve site performance. A number of companies have grown incredibly by continuing and building on this belief. It is now commonly thought that anyone with a significant Web presence needs to step up and invest in a strong Web analytics tool.

You need to invest not only in the right tool but also in the right people and internal processes to make the tool successful and put the data to work. And Web analytics is just one piece of the puzzle in understanding your visitors and your audience in general, though it is the one with the loudest voice. What this means is other equally important aspects are often overlooked or forgotten about.

All this matters because too many companies only understand one aspect of what happens on their sites. Let's look at two examples.

Web analytics helps you identify a few weak calls to action to get people to convert on your site. Let's say only about 2 percent of all your sales occur online. You set up a test hoping to increase your online conversion rate through an A/B test improving a call to action. You run the test and are ecstatic that you increase it to 2.3 percent. It is seen as a huge success, and people move onto the next project.

But what if you had included an attitudinal study to understand the difference in how visitors are feeling when exposed to the new calls to action or content? You might have found that while there was a significant increase in the online conversion, you were turning off many visitors and doing something that would cause them not to interact with you again. You basically increased your online conversion rate by 0.3 percentage points but turned off the other 97.7 percent of the people who visited; depending on the level of negative feeling, that could have a 100-fold impact on overall sales. Again, if you only look at the behavioral data, you wouldn't understand the negative impact you may be having on the bulk of your audience.

For our second example, let's say you are thrilled to see that traffic to your site has been increasing 10 percent per quarter for the last three quarters and your conversion rate is staying the same. But when you look at your top five competitors' online performance, you find that they have been growing at a much faster clip over the last few months and you aren't keeping up. They are pulling away from you in terms of attracting visitors to their sites. Now you just went from feeling great about your growth to realizing that you're missing out on a significant growth opportunity. If you had looked at the behavioral data, you would have made an incorrect assessment and lost an opportunity.

So what types of data should site owners be considering? It depends on your business, company size, potential upside in improving site performance, and many other factors. Our most serious clients that have the greatest upside in their online performance typically look at data in the following areas to better understand their audience. It should be noted that these are the data they use to understand and improve the online channel. Obviously there is a ton of other data that can be considered when wanting to understand your audience offline.

Let's start by looking at the different types of data:

  • Behavioral Web analytics data. We have covered this; think Omniture, WebTrends, Coremetrics, and Google Analytics. The data focus on what people are doing on the site, where they are clicking, where they enter the site, where they exit the site, how they navigate it, and so forth.

  • Attitudinal data. In contrast, attitudinal data help you understand the "why" through surveys, focus groups, and the like. It helps you understand how your audience feels as they interact with your site, products, or business. You can start to see that by combining the "what" and "why" can be much more powerful than either one on its own.

  • Transactional data. These data can include a lot of different things. But increasingly, there isn't just one place where transactions can occur. They could occur online; in-store; through a partner, reseller, or affiliate; through the mail; over the phone; the list goes on and on. Often at some point during the sales process, there is an online touch point. Understand the different transaction points so you can understand the role the Web plays in the overall process.

  • Marketing data. What are the drivers to the site, the messages they are delivering, and the calls to action they are pushing? Different marketing campaigns can have a significant impact on what visitors are looking for when they come to your site or interact with your business. Without an understanding of these marketing data, you could easily interpret changes in behavior on your site incorrectly and make changes based on that. If you know what is happening and working within any given marketing campaigns, you can tune landing pages or take lessons from what people are responding to in other marketing channels.

  • Social media data. This is one of the newer things you need to look at and understand. Much of the interaction and exposure your customers or prospects have with your company and brand occur in channels you don't have control over. Word of mouth has always played a role, but with the power of social media it is so much easier to share and be heard. Obviously if there is positive or negative sentiment around your company or products, it will have an impact when people interact with your business directly. How can you maximize that interaction and tune the messaging on your site based on what your audience is hearing in channels you can't control? Without knowing what people are saying and being exposed to, you can't. Again, you could easily misinterpret changing trends on your site and act on them incorrectly, unless you understand what is happening in the social media space.

  • Competitive data. Know how your growth or shifting success is related to others in your space. You could be leaving money on the table or missing an opportunity that others are taking advantage of. Naturally, you don't want to be chasing your competitors or basing your strategy purely on them. This is simply another way to understand the market.

Challenge yourself to think about what type of data you could use if your Web analytics data wasn't there. What are the gaps in your understanding based on over-focusing on the behavioral data just on your Web site? None of this is to say that the Web analytics data isn't valuable, but it must be considered one of many pieces needed to understand your audience. Remember, the entire focus of this work is to identify areas of your business you can improve based on your overall business goals. If you aren't acting on the data, you're simply looking in the rearview mirror.

Look for ways to integrate the different types of data based on what you are analyzing and trying to solve. Ensure you see the full story to drive your decisions to maximize your Web channel and overall business.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Burby

As President of the Americas at POSSIBLE, Jason is responsible for leading the long-term stability and growth of the region. With more than 20 years experience in digital strategy, he is a long-time advocate of using data to inform digital strategies to help clients attract, convert, and retain customers. Jason supports POSSIBLE's clients and employees in driving new engagements and delivering great work that works. He is the co-author of Actionable Web Analytics: Using Data to Make Smart Business Decisions.

Follow him on Twitter @JasonBurby.

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