If there is one major advantage that digital commerce has brought to just about every marketplace, it’s the fact that people who are shopping, looking to purchase a service, or in any way planning to spend money online, leave their footprints behind them. It’s for that very reason that web analytics software has become so popular, widely available, and increasingly advanced in terms of the technologies available.
When customers leave a data trail, the behavior that drives their purchasing decisions can be ascertained by sifting through that data with the help of analytics tools. Armed with this information, your team is able to gain insight into powerful information; which marketing channels and campaigns are most successful, attribution data, buyer personas, and much more to capitalize on that knowledge.
However, there is such a wealth of data available and so many web analytics tools occupying the commercial software market, that as AT Internet Editorial Manager, Bernard Segarra makes clear in his blog post 12 Essential Criteria To Help You Choose Your Web Analytics Solution, selecting the right digital marketing analytics platform is a decisively important process.
Spoiled for Choice or Hypnotized by Hype?
Indeed, a number of writers covering the topic of analytics software liken the process of selecting a solution, to choosing a partner with whom to get wed. Those same writers use the term “marriage” as a metaphor for the long years through which a company lives with its chosen software. Even the venerable Digital Marketing Evangelist for Google, Avinash Kaushik, is not above quoting the similarities between wedlock and the union of an enterprise and its web analytics tool. In his blog post titled How to Choose a Web Analytics Tool: A Radical Alternative, Kaushik even takes the analogy as far as an assessment of the likelihood for divorce.
The point these authors are all trying to make, is that with so many suitors out there in the world of marketing analytics software, finding a solution is unlikely to present a problem. However, the chances of making what seems like the right choice, only to be disappointed with the longer term results, are also considerable—if you don’t take a careful and methodical approach to choosing the right analytics software for your own, individual and unique business needs.
The problem is not so much one of identifying the good products among the bad. While hyperbole abounds, most of the offerings are actually pretty damn good. The fact is though, that a web analytics application which works brilliantly for other businesses might be an unmitigated disappointment for yours.
Such are the differences in software and in customer needs, that choosing correctly requires a diligent and carefully crafted approach. For that reason, this guide has been created to help you learn what’s what and how to get through the analytics software selection process with the minimum of pain, to achieve the maximum in gains.
A Quick Look at the Selection Process
The traditional approach for choosing analytics software is similar to that of any commercial software procurement exercise. However this method, involving the use of an RFP, which is sent out to a list of potential vendors, is beginning to lose favor, due to its lengthiness and some inherent pitfalls which make it less than suitable for cloud and SaaS solutions. An alternative approach, suggested by Avinash Kaushik, is rather radical and takes advantage of all the benefits of the SaaS model through which most web analytics software products are delivered.
The intention of this guide is not to provide a step-by-step rundown of the selection process, since you can read about Kaushik’s radical approach in his blog and the traditional approach to commercial software procurement is published in many buyer’s guides and articles. Instead, this article focuses on the questions to ask of yourself and your business before setting out to choose your solution, as well as the most important criteria to look for when you begin shortlisting products and vendors.
Assessing Your Marketing Analytics Requirements
It may seem obvious that you should know what you want from an analytics tool before you set out to choose one. Still many companies have inexplicably done the opposite, as noted in the AT Internet white paper by Jacques Warren, titled Choosing a Web Analytics Solution.
Even if you are planning to follow the Kaushik approach to choosing software, which entails utilizing a free tool just to get familiar with analytics and to experiment, it still makes good sense to gather some information about what you and other key stakeholders need from a solution.
Search Engine Land’s Evan Lapointe recommends thinking about the following points in his 2009 article How to Choose a Web Analytics Solution:
- What level of management in your organization will oversee the analytics solution?
- What information do stakeholders need from the software?
- What motivates or incentivizes the performance of employees who will use the analytics tool?
- What are the frequently made key decisions impacting the websites that will be monitored?
The answers to these questions and others like them will help you identify important drivers in the decision-making process for managing your company’s web presence. This in turn will highlight some of the capabilities you should look for in your search for the right analytics software.
Next you should turn your attention to some more specific questions relating to your marketing and sales activity.
HubSpot Product Marketer Meghan Keaney Anderson outlines some very pertinent points to explore in one of her blog posts on the HubSpot site. In A Marketer’s Guide to Picking the Perfect Analytics Tool, Heaney suggests exploring the following nuances of your business:
Do your leads generally convert after just one interaction or many?
If purchases tend to take place a short time after the first touchpoint, a solution which aggregates data, leaving your leads’ anonymity intact, will probably suit you just fine. On the other hand, if sales take place after numerous interactions, a more customer-focused tool, which provides data relating to individual visitors, will likely prove more useful. Although more and more solutions are providing data about individual visitors to your site, Mixpanel and Kissmetrics are still the two strongest performers in this regard.
How rich is your business in technical/analytical skills?
If your company has an analyst on board, or a team of analysts, or you are planning to recruit someone with analytic expertise, your choice of web analytics software might be from one of the more powerful enterprise solutions. If those skills are not present in your business, you might be better off seeking a cloud-based solution centered on ease of use.
The same question can be applied to the need for general IT resources. If you have extensive IT infrastructure and a team of technicians to maintain it, you might select an on-premises solution, although these are generally becoming thin on the ground. Cloud-based analytics tools are now pretty much the de facto standard and are of course, ideal if technical expertise within your organization is limited.
Understand your mix of marketing channels:
Make a point of documenting all the channels you use for marketing your products and/or services. Identify when, where and how often your campaigns span multiple channels. If complexity tends to be the norm, then you will probably need a multichannel marketing analytics tool. Otherwise, a more basic solution should suffice.
How important is the long-term customer relationship?
Does your business deal mainly with one-time customers or is retention a key factor for your enterprise? If you expect a web analytics solution to support relationship-building and growth in lifetime value, you should choose software that can easily integrate with CRM and other customer-service solutions. Even if you don’t have CRM now, it’s better to have an analytics tool that plays nicely with any customer relationship tools you may later acquire.
Best-selling author Bryan Eisenberg wrote a piece for marketing news website Clickz, called How to Choose a Web Analytics Solution, in which he lists a detailed set of questions relating to selection criteria; among them, perhaps the most important question of all, “what exactly do we want to measure?” Other essential questions to answer include:
- Should you choose a software package or engage a SaaS provider?
- Is it important for your business to have real-time reporting?
- What’s a realistic annual or monthly budget for analytics expenditure, based on current revenue?
Having answered all the above questions, you should have a pretty comprehensive list of your company’s most important analytic needs. Therefore, now would be a good time to move on and examine some actual selection criteria.
General Essentials for Any Marketing Analytics Software
Writing for Data Science Central, analytics expert Dr. Vincent Granville provides an extensive list of potential web analytics software criteria in his article 27 Criteria to Choose Analytic Tools. Some of the following points take inspiration from his list, but elaborate on them in a little more detail, to help you identify features you should consider to be essential in any analytics tool, regardless of your company’s more specific requirements.
Real-time data analysis:
Right now, few companies have the flexibility necessary to take full advantage of real time analytics tools. However as technology continues to advance, this situation will change. As you are likely to retain your chosen web and mobile analytics software for some years, it makes sense to include real-time processing in your list of essential criteria. When technology becomes available to enable you to respond and act upon real-time information, you’ll be glad you have the ability to collect and analyze it.
Technical support, training and documentation:
Quite simply, if you want the implementation of your analytics software to be successful, you need a vendor who is going to support you throughout the process and also after go-live. Your staff should have access to solid training and plenty of self-help documentation or online support to quickly find their way out of any difficulties when working with the live solution.
Questions to ask vendors regarding support include:
- How strong is the documentation?
- What days and hours are covered by live support?
- Does the provider offer any online or offline product training?
- What other support channels are provided (forums, user groups, tutorials or similar)?
Price and Ongoing Costs:
The pricing and operating costs of web analytics software should be transparent. If you come across a vendor that cannot show you clearly what your software will cost you over the three years following purchase, it would be best to look elsewhere.
For example, you should be able to clearly identify what add-on modules are available and how much each one costs. Be wary of vendors who tell you something like “if you want that, we can develop it”. Such a statement implies the risk of indeterminate costs if you should want to add a feature not present in the core product.
Other essential criteria; meaning things which should be a show stopper if absent from any vendor-offering, include:
- Compliance with regulations and legislation regarding data collection and security
- Ability to trial the product/service before making a long-term commitment
- A vendor that deals with marketing, web and mobile analytics as its core business
- A vendor that’s prepared to commit to service levels, ideally through a service level agreement
- A viable vendor with good financial stability—one that’s still likely to be in business in 5-10 years-time
Quite honestly, in shortlisting your prospective analytics solution, you’re well advised to eliminate any offering that comes up short on just one of the points mentioned in this section.
Moving on, you should start to ask the questions which will determine a product that fits well with your business and its analytic requirements.
Finding the Tool that Fits
The next few questions will help you to assess if a vendor’s offering is a good fit for your business, based on what you learned from your introspective fact-finding.
Questions relating to analytic approach:
- Does the software aggregate data or is it customer-centric?
- Are you able to see what led to the conversion of leads at an individual level?
Questions relating to ease of use:
- Does the software support, or even require user-customization?
- What’s the typical implementation timescale for the solution?
- Are the reports easy to read and interpret?
- Does the software employ an easy-to-use interface for users (GUI)?
- Does the vendor recommend that you have an employee responsible for managing the software?
Questions about channel features:
- Does the tool offer a single view of leads’ interactions regardless of marketing channel mix?
- How does the software handle marketing attribution?
- What mobile analytics capabilities does the software have and how do they mesh with non-mobile analytics?
Questions relating to connectivity:
- How does the solution integrate with other applications such as CRM?
- Does the tool allow tracking and analysis of after-sales interactions?
Questions relating to general usability:
- How scalable is the solution?
- Can the software easily cope with an increasing volume load?
- How does the tool impact page loading speed?
- Does the solution have built-in redundancy?
- Can you customize the level of analysis?
- What do reports look like and how fast are they to produce?
- Does the software support calculation of lifetime value through closed-loop marketing and other features relevant to identifying the return on marketing investment?
The Importance of Tests and Demos
Not all of the above questions can be answered by simply asking the vendors. For one thing, some of the answers may not be easy to articulate. For another, some vendors will inevitably tell you what they think you want to hear. Therefore, the importance of testing shortlisted solutions must not be underestimated. Perhaps the best way to do this is to implement the shortlisted solutions on your website. Use them all and compare everything except the actual metrics results.
Why shouldn’t you compare the results?
It’s because they will most likely be different in every case, which will leave you wondering what’s wrong. Worrying about something like that will only distract you from the purpose of your testing, which is to determine which analytics solution best fits your business needs. Your live testing should focus on answering the questions in the previous section of this guide; none of which, as you’ve probably noticed, are focused on accuracy of results.
Another caveat to this method of testing analytics tools prospectively is that you should not be tempted to go forward with more than one solution; that’s for the same reason as discussed above. Collecting metrics from two solutions will result in differences, meaning you will never have a clear picture of your marketing results.
Demos as an Alternative to Testing
An alternative to live testing is to spend some time on the interactive demos which many providers, such as Kissmetrics and Mixpanel offer. As IT executive Peter Campbell asserts in his Idealware guide The Perfect Fit: A Guide to Evaluating and Purchasing Major Software Systems, demos give you the ability to:
- Assess the look and feel of the software
- Provide your staff with some initial training in use of the different tools
- Identify if and how the solutions handle non-standard requirements unique to your business
That said, unless time or some other constraint really precludes you from a longer term live software trial, there is nothing quite like learning from the experience of working with real metrics, based on your own website activity. The good thing about cloud-based analytics tools is that any provider worth its salt will allow you to try its offering for a short time, free-of-charge. For example, Kissmetrics offers a 14-day free trial, while Mixpanel offers free use indefinitely, albeit on a limited basis.
Time to Decide
That’s all there is to it! Once you’ve tested your shortlisted solutions, you should have a very good idea which software best matches your needs as identified by your introspective fact-finding. If you have been methodical in your approach to gathering information, the combined results of your testing and your questioning of providers should highlight a clear leader amongst the field you started with. Of course if it looks like the running is close between two or more of your shortlisted analytics providers, you’ll need to make your final decision based on pricing or another specific factor.
A final point to remember is this: Analytics tools show you a picture of interactions between leads or customers and your digital business. The real analysis is in interpreting those results and turning them into strategic or tactical action.
Sometimes, your business is better served by engaging a professional consulting provider to analyze your marketing data and help you turn insight into action. That’s what we excel in here at McGaw.io.