Web sites long have struggled with how to manage the mother lode of data at their disposal, but new power tools provide a solution -- assuming marketers can figure out how to operate the tools.
Many software companies claim to help Web marketers track who clicks where, when and even why. Not only that, but what information or service consumers want and how best to deliver it.
MORE THAN CRUNCHING
"I don't know how, going forward, you will manage sites without having some data about what customers are doing and what they want," said Mary Jane Crain, a marketing specialist with the U.S. Postal Service's Internet Business Group.
But as the Postal Service is learning, crunching data is one thing; acting upon it is much more challenging.
The Postal Service a year ago began using Web-site analysis software from Andromedia, San Francisco. Andromedia's package, called Aria, helps site owners track visitors' paths, tracing where they came in, how many pages they viewed, when they came and how long they stayed. The software also can generate reports categorizing visitors or measuring the effectiveness of promotions.
"We really needed a real-time solution to suit all the functional organizations" within the Postal Service, said Jennifer Spitz, Web quality assurance specialist. "We needed a solution to allow each of those content owners to address their specific concerns."
MAKING AN IMPACT
Andromedia's software competes with a host of data tool suppliers ranging from Accrue Software to high-end data-mining software from Oracle Corp., E.piphany and DataSage. The post office paid more than $100,000 for Aria software and services, Ms. Spitz said.
The software has enabled the Postal Service to measure the impact of advertising on Web site traffic.
For example, the recent "Fly Like an Eagle" ad campaign from Foote, Cone & Belding, New York, featured the usps.com Web address. The Postal Service's actual URL is www.usps.gov. But usps.com also delivers traffic to the site, and the post office wanted to build the trendier "dot-com" address as a brand.
Last October, well before the campaign began, only 0.5% of all visits to the Postal Service site came through usps.com. But in March, at the height of the campaign, 1.3% of visits came through that address, according to information from Aria.
"What that begins to show you is that some impact was had by those commercials," said Ms. Spitz.
But the influence apparently wasn't all that great, given the 0.8 percentage point rise.
In another instance, the Postal Service in March broke an FCB ad campaign promoting a delivery confirmation service, which includes the ability to track package delivery online. In early March, before the campaign began, 6% of site visitors made the Track/Confirm page their second click upon visiting the site. By the end of March, 14% of people hit the area on their second click, making it the second most popular place to visit on the site, Ms. Spitz said. The home page remained the most popular destination.
The Postal Service determined that only about 50% of people who visited the Track/Confirm page in a recent week in July actually tracked a package. As a result, the feature may be changed to make tracking easier.
Measuring the effectiveness of advertising is only one challenge facing the Postal Service. Spurred by private-sector rivals, such as Federal Express Corp. and United Parcel Service of America, the Postal Service is readying a series of e-commerce initiatives.
As the Postal Service ramps up with e-commerce, the need for data grows exponentially. How do people shop? Do they put things into their virtual shopping cart and then take them out? Do they abandon a transaction without completing it? The Postal Service is considering upgrading to a version of Aria that tracks such activity.
"If you knew that someone was particularly interested in stamps, because they went to that page, then you would know to offer them something about stamps," said Ms. Crain.
Though you can buy stamps through the Postal Service's site now, it's a clunky procedure. That's supposed to change by the holiday season, when the Postal Service expects to unveil an all-new site powered by e-commerce software from BroadVision.
In the meantime, the post office has several e-commerce tests under way, including downloadable digital postage, in conjunction with E-Stamp Corp. and Stamps.com, and a service enabling a business to design a mailing, transmit it to a printer and have it dropped into the mail, all electronically.
Like many marketers making a transition from street-based business to online business, the Postal Service is moving slowly in its use of Internet data -- perhaps more slowly than most, due to many layers of bureaucracy and the physical distance between its Washington headquarters and its technology group, based in San Mateo, Calif.
The Postal Service's Internet Business Group acts as a liaison between the two far-flung arms, but Ms. Crain acknowledges "it's a challenge -- how to respond at Internet speed."
STATS CAN BE OVERWHELMING
The biggest challenge, however, is getting Postal Service executives to use the data.
"To date, we haven't perhaps used it as much as we could," said Ms. Crain. "We've been getting a lot of statistics on a daily basis, and that can overwhelm you."
Contributing to the problem: Not enough managers know how to use Aria. That's led Ms. Spitz to start conducting training seminars.
"The most important thing is to teach people the interface," she said. "Nine times out of 10, they can get exactly what they're looking for -- if they know what they're looking for."
That's where Internet data analysis reaches its stumbling block. Businesspeople acknowledge its need, but they're not sure what to ask for, or how to use the information once they have it.
Give the Postal Service credit for recognizing that it needs to understand data before managing its Web business. But until it figures out how to act on the data, it will lag private-sector rivals.
Debra Aho Williamson this month joins Advertising Age as a contributing editor. Ms. Williamson, a Mercer Island, Wash.-based journalist covering Internet business issues, writes the monthly Inside the Web case study. Send case study ideas to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or Editor Bradley Johnson at