Digital Marketing Analytics Over the Decade

Around this time of year, it’s hard not to reflect on the past 12 months and think ahead to the next. As I sat down to write this column, it struck me that I’m about to complete my first decade working in digital marketing analytics. In 2000, I went to work at an online auctions business after spending many years in “offline” marketing analytics and consumer insight. When I got to this online business, the head of marketing told me to forget everything that I had learned in the offline world, as this was “new media” and “things were different” now.

Things were different. There were different marketing channels to manage and to understand and different technologies to collect and analyze data. Things were happening phenomenally fast, and it seemed that the normal rules no longer applied. But I quickly came to the view (and one to which I still subscribe) that underneath all the noise and excitement, the normal rules still applied and the core principles and marketing analytics were still valid. The methods of execution and analysis may change, but at the end of the day it’s just another marketing channel.

So, how far has digital analytics come in the last 10 years?

In some ways it has come very far, but in other areas there’s still a way to go. First of all, Web analytics exists as an industry in a way that it didn’t at the beginning of the decade. There’s an established Web Analytics Association, which continues to grow and shape the industry. Soon, there will be certification, which will allow analysts to have official recognition of their competence and expertise. So, in that sense, the Web analytics industry is displaying more of the characteristics of its older cousins, such as brand (advertising) marketing and direct marketing.

There have also obviously been significant developments in the technology behind Web analytics. The costs of data collection have fallen dramatically, enabling more organizations to have access to data on what is happening on their Web site and the effect of their digital marketing campaigns. The page tag has become a universal method of collecting that data, giving the potential of real-time or near real-time results. The reporting interfaces on Web analytics systems have (on the whole) gotten better, allowing easier access to that data and the ability to generate new or customized reports.

If I have a frustration about the development of the industry over the last 10 years, it’s this: we haven’t grown wiser about how digital marketing works or begun to truly understand the dynamics of marketing across multiples channels. In this sense, I wonder whether we’re any better off than our offline colleagues. There’s the famous saying, attributed to John Wanamaker: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” That was said over a hundred years ago but how many digital marketers today really believe that they are any better off than John Wanamaker was back then, even with all the technology and data at our disposal? If so, then why is this?

One thought is that we’ve become the victims of the data. Because we have so much data available to us, we have become paralyzed by the numbers. In John Wanamaker’s time they didn’t have the data. These days, a lot of offline marketing analytics are supported by data that can be expensive to collect, whereas digital data is cheap and widely available. Does this wide availability of data mean that we’re not as efficient and effective in our analysis as we should be? That thought often crosses my mind. I might be wrong, but having worked on both sides of the online/offline fence my sense is that over the past 10 years the online marketing world has been “data rich” but “analytically poor.” We still have constraints and conventions, such as last click attribution, that make it easier to report historical activity but not to measure marketing effectiveness. I have no doubt that this industry will continue to evolve, adapt, and flourish. We have new challenges to address such as measuring the newer digital channels like mobile, but my hope is that we don’t get too wrapped up in the technology and that the focus will be more on the “analytics” in Web analytics, rather than the “Web.”

My best wishes for a successful, prosperous, and satisfying 2010.

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