People do the strangest things when you don't know what they're doing.
This was brought home to me at the conferences I spoke at over the past two months in Seattle, Vancouver, New York, Philadelphia, Melbourne, and London. At each conference, one or more of the presenters mentioned the necessity to step away from the numbers and go talk to real customers.
The first, worst enemy of analysis is averages. The average number of people who click a certain button, the average bounce rate, the average number of 404's - all useless. Of course, a big spike or a big drop in any average is cause for alarm and review, but the average itself is meaningless.
The next, worst enemy of analysis is climbing into your own head and staying there. Humans like to create mental models of the world. It's useful. It's convenient. It helps us remember where we left our keys and what our uncle-in-law's second wife might like for Christmas.
But when we create a mental model of the marketplace, we make decisions based on a photograph instead of keeping our eyes on the movie. It's like driving with intermittent stills from Google Street View on the windshield instead of seeing the landscape in real time.
What's an analytics manager to do?
Get your team to peel their eyes off the numbers and look into the eyes of customers. Deducing what people are doing based on their footprints is much easier if you get the chance to speak with them as well.
The expectant mother is curious about strollers and looks at a few on her iPhone while in line at the grocery store. She then goes to the department store to get a feel for the quality and durability of the strollers she likes. While there, she looks on her iPad for other features she should be asking about. When satisfied, she heads home to compare, contrast, and shop price online. Finally, she heads back to the store with her stepfather because he wants to buy it for her today.
From a numbers perspective, you have three different people visiting your online properties in three different segments of the sales cycle, and one buyer walking into your retail store with a credit card at the ready. You cannot deduce this very understandable, human behavior purely by the numbers.
Invest in a tool that lets you see what people actually did on your website; something like Tealeaf, ClickTale, or BMC End User Experience Management. Watch the mouse as it darts back and forth, hesitates over a drop-down menu, and then strikes!
Invest in a focus group. Yes, it may seem silly to bring a bunch of people together and lock them in a conference room until they tell you what you want to hear... and it is! Instead, gather some of your customers for a conversation and listen to them. Not in a quantitative way, just in a get-to-know-you, qualitative way.
Conduct formal interviews. Kristin Zhivago is a master of calling up customers and asking open-ended questions that yield insight instead of numbers. She has years of experience in the tech sector and can ask your customers about their use of social media (or of your products) and their first-hand experience of your company. She finds out their needs and their expectations - the first factor of customer satisfaction.
Observe your customers in their natural habitat. Shari Cleary, vice president of strategic insights and research at Viacom Entertainment Group likes to conduct ethnographic studies. The company sends researchers into peoples' homes and hangs out with them. That's the only way to know how people really watch Comedy Central or Spike TV. Are they really listening to their iPods while watching TV, texting their friends, and playing Angry Birds on their iPads at the same time?
Remember, you're not the target audience. They don't know what you know, they don't think like you think, and they can multitask like you wouldn't believe.
Making assumptions about your customers as if they were you is wrong. Making assumptions about your customers as if they were you and basing those assumptions on numerical averages is business suicide.
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Jim Sterne is an international consultant focused on measuring the value of the online marketing for creating and strengthening customer relationships. Sterne has written eight books on using the Internet for marketing, produces the eMetrics Marketing Optimization Summit and is co-founder and current chairman of the Digital Analytics Association.