Are web analytics like 24-hour news networks?

We have immediate access to loads of data with our web sites, but just because we can access lots of data in real time doesn’t mean we should access our data in real time. In fact, accessing and reporting on the numbers too quickly can often lead to distractions, false conclusions, premature reactions and bad decisions.

I was attending the web-analytics-focused Semphonic X Change conference last week in San Francisco (which, by the way, was fantastic) where lots of discussion centered around both the glories and the issues associated with the mass amount of data we have available to us in the world of the web.

Before heading down for the conference breakfast Friday morning (September 11), I switched on CNN and saw — played out in all their glory on national TV — the types of issues that can occur with reporting too early on available data.

It seems CNN reporters “monitoring video” from a local TV station saw Coast Guard vessels in the Potomac River apparently trying to keep another vessel from passing. They then monitored the Coast Guard radio and heard someone say, “You’re approaching a Coast Guard security zone. … If you don’t stop your vessel, you will be fired upon. Stop your vessel immediately.” And, for my favorite part of the story, they made the decision to go on air when they heard someone say “bang, bang, bang, bang” and “we have expended 10 rounds.” They didn’t hear actual gun shots, mind you, they heard someone say “bang.” Could this be a case of someone wanting the data to say something it isn’t really saying?

In the end, it turned out the Coast Guard was simply executing a training exercise it runs four times a week! Yet, the results of CNN’s premature, erroneous and nationally broadcast report caused distractions to the Coast Guard leadership and White House leadership, caused the misappropriation of FBI agents who were sent to the waterfront unnecessarily, led to the grounding of planes at Washington National airport for 22 minutes, and resulted in reactionary demands from law enforcement agencies that they be alerted of such exercises in the future, even though the exercises run four times per week and those alerts will likely be quickly ignored because they will become so routine.

In the days when we only got news nightly, reporters would have chased down the information, discovered it was a non-issue and the report would have never aired. The 24-hour networks have such a need for speed of reporting that they’ve sacrificed accuracy and credibility.

Let’s not let such a rush negatively affect our businesses.

Later on that same day, I was attending a conference discussion on the role of web analytics in site redesigns. Several analysts in the room mentioned their frustrations when they were asked by executives for a report on how the new design was doing only a couple of hours after the launch of new site design. They wanted to be able to provide solid insight, but they knew they couldn’t provide anything reliable so soon.

Even though a lot of data is already available a couple of hours in, that data lacks the context necessary to start drawing conclusions.

For one, most site redesigns experience a dip in key metrics initially as regular customers adjust to a new look and feel. In the physical retail world, we used to call this the “Where’s my stuff?” phenomenon. But even if we set the initial dip aside, there are way too many variables involved in the short term of web activity to make any reliable assessments of the new design’s effectiveness. As with any short term measurement, the possibilities for random outliers to unnaturally sway the measurement to one direction or another is high. It takes some time and an accumulation of data to be sure we have a reliable story to tell.

And even with time, web data collection is not perfect. Deleted cookies, missed connections, etc. can all cause some problems in the overall completeness of the data. For that matter, I’ve rarely seen the perfect set of data in any retail environment. Given the imperfect nature of the data we’re using to make key strategic decisions, we need to give our analysts time to review it, debate it and come to reasoned conclusions before we react.

I realize the temptation is strong to get an “early read” on the progress of a new site design (or any strategic issue, really). I’ve certainly felt it myself on many occasions. However, since just about every manager and executive I know (including myself) has a strong bias for action, we have to be aware of the risks associated with these “early reads” and our own abilities or inabilities to make conclusions and immediately react. Early reads can lead to the bad decisions associated with the full accelerator/full brake syndrome I’ve referenced previously.

We can spend months or even years preparing for a massive new strategic effort and strangle it within days by overreacting to early data. Instead, I wonder if it’s a better to determine well in advance of the launch — when we’re thinking more rationally and the temptation to know something is low — when we’ll first analyze the success of our new venture. Why not make such reporting part of the project plan and publicly set expectations about when we’ll review the data and what type of adjustments we should plan to make based on what we learn?

In the end, let’s let our analysts strive for the credibility of the old nightly news rather than emulate the speed and rush to judgment that too often occurs in this era of 24-hours news. Our businesses and our strategies are too important and have taken too long to build to sacrifice them to a short-term need for speed.

What do you think? Have you seen this issue in action? How do you need with the balance between quick information and thoughtful analysis?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons




3 Comments

  • By Sarah, September 15, 2009 @ 11:54 am

    Thsi is a thought-provoking post, and one that makes the case that we need to stand up to our bosses when they pressure us to report on data earlier than we think is appropriate. However, one caveat to your point in the first paragraph that we are even accessing data too quickly: some times data can be a real canary in a coal mine with some website problems. Sometimes you can see right away that a link is broken or that something isn’t working right, and you can tell it within minutes. So I’d make the case that we should be watching the data, just not acting on it so soon.

  • By Kevin Ertell, September 15, 2009 @ 6:40 pm

    Thanks for pointing out the value of immediate data at times, Sarah. I completely agree that a massive short term change in data is a cause for alarm, particularly when there was no other major change occurring on the site. As you recognize, that type of situation is different from just wanting to know if a major strategic change is effective in a very short time after launching it. Thanks again for your comments.

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