Analytics find customer focus

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Latest emphasis is on tracking visitors' actions over time and across channels

Richard Karpinski

Page views. Unique visits. Downloads. Time on site. All of these Web analytics metrics, and more, have had their day in the sun. But if Web analytics moved forward at all in 2006—and there's plenty of evidence they did—the biggest step forward may be the move to turn attention back to where it really counts: the customer.

"The future is all about the user," said Aaron Kahlow, managing partner of BusinessOnLine, kicking off a panel at the recent Online Marketing Summit in San Diego.

Indeed, monitoring customer activity—and correlating it across multiple sessions and multiple channels—has moved to the very top of the b-to-b marketer's to-do list.

"We're seeing a growing acknowledgment that customers interact with an organization over time and across multiple channels to complete their goals," said Megan Burns, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "The more visibility people have into that process, the more they really understand customer buying behavior."

In the emerging world of Web analytics, "visibility" can mean a number of things. On a Web site itself, it can mean time spent interacting with shopping carts, video windows or rich media.

"It's all a matter of events now. If someone is trying to accomplish something on a Web site, you need to track and analyze the tripwires they are setting off," said Jim Sterne, president of the Web Analytics Association. "We used to think about page views being events. We were wrong; this is much better."

"If you look at video and AJAX, two areas our clients are investing in, measuring success basically involves a complete remap of a Web site," said John Squire, senior VP-product strategy and general manager-marketing services for Web analytics vendor Coremetrics. In particular, Coremetrics and its clients focus on a "real estate" analysis of a Web page, including a large amount of A/B testing to use the "wisdom of the crowd" to determine how best to deliver a rich media experience that customers will really use, Squire said.

"How to optimize those user experiences is really the next big wave" in Web analytics, he said.

While many marketers have become entranced by the glitz of Web 2.0 applications, the real power of such apps may be that they put even more accessibility in the marketer's toolbox to engage the customer—and ultimately measure whether that engagement is successful.

"One of the great things about Web 2.0," said Barry Parshall, director of product management at WebTrends, "is that it gets marketing organizations thinking more about what they want visitors to do on their site and thus creates the experience that will cause them to do just that. The mechanics of creating that content and measuring how users interact with it is not really that big of a deal these days."

"Web 2.0 is not the end, it's just a step on the path," Squire said. "It's the same thing we've been doing for seven years: let's collect all the data we can on unique customers on a site and let's figure out if we can engage those customers better and figure out what parts of the site work and what parts don't work."

Measuring Web activity is one thing. In the larger world, it is just as important to match up that Web activity with customer communications via e-mail, clicks on banner or text ads, interactions at the call center, back-and-forths with your sales staff and, yes, even relationships that take place in physical locations.

"If you only care about how many people come to your Web site, that's a thing of the past," Sterne said. "Now, it's: What does their behavior look like on your Web site? Tomorrow, it will be: How do I combine the behavioral data I have on online customers with offline, call center and mobile phone data—what do I know about my customers and how can I profile them to create a holistic picture?"

Another major trend is the need to truly analyze Web data, not just collect it. Web analytics and marketing dashboards come into play here, offering b-to-b marketers a tool to visually analyze Web metrics to determine what is really happening in the business.

"I'm a firm believer in managing by metrics, but it's imperative you look at the relationship among those metrics," said Brian Bond, VP-product management at LogoWorks, a business services company. "A lower number of Web impressions and conversions might show negative trends, but sitting next to that gauge may be another that shows online advertising costs are going up. The relationship between these may tell me I have wrong positioning or products."

Indeed, once marketers begin to get a true picture of customer behavior by analyzing a multitude of user behaviors, both online and off, they can get back to what they do best: finding ways to reach customers with products and product offers that will truly meet their needs.

All of which puts yet another burden on b-to-b marketers. Now that almost any user behavior can be tracked and analyzed, what behaviors truly matter? What turns a browser into a buyer, a customer into a repeat customer?

The answer, experts say, is not only to invest wisely in Web analytics but to use them wisely as well.

"The greatest danger is not carefully considering what you want to measure and why," said Eric Peterson, VP of WebSideStory's Visual Sciences and author of the book "Web Analytics Demystified." "You can spend a lot of money but have no sense."

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