Guest Comment: Creativity versus Counting

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Is the digital industry becoming too dependent on using web analytics to asses customer behaviour?

Martyn Perks, business consultant at cScape, warns that collecting too much data can cloud decision-making, even causing complacency when bolder decisions need to be made.

Understanding what people do online has never been easier and yet so fraught with difficulties. The huge recent growth in the customer analytics industry indicates that businesses are increasingly keen to learn about how their customers use – or avoid – their websites. 

But beyond the burgeoning trend, many continue to draw too bold a line between what customers click on, and what they desire. As recent research from E-Consultancy suggests, many companies invest heavily in online analytics but only 18% manage to successfully relate this data to their business objectives.

Unable to tie in the reams of data with the keystones of their original business model, companies struggle to glean any truly insightful conclusions from their investment. Ironically though, the trend in customer analytics will continue to proliferate. Why? So long as the current pessimistic economic climate prevails, businesses will cling to hard numbers that seem to offer cast-iron solutions; numbers that quantify what their customers are doing online.

The seduction of online analytics is its purported reliability – the data has already been proven more reliable than that gained from measuring the impact of offline media including TV and print. This reliability is good news at a time when companies need a clear picture of usage and impact, squeezed from an increasingly tight budget. However, the huge quantities of data involved in customer analytics can create a cyclic situation – as businesses focus on making the numbers move, statistics become both the means and the end of success.

Looking at analytic information is a useful exercise for those that need to make tweaks to something that already works. It’s fantastic for making incremental and ongoing improvements. When faced with bigger problems, fiddling with a website in response to customer usage data will often end in nothing but paralysis. It’s hard to swallow, but too often an obsession with customer statistics masks a business’s inability to face up to the real issues.

Easier to tweak and make the numbers twitch, than to address the products or services themselves.

For example, a website with moderate usage obviously often won’t match up when compared with the competition; low sales confirm its lack-lustre performance. Businesses with this dilemma will frequently apply new designs, different page layouts and undertake various other rebranding exercises. Inevitably this will have a marginally positive effect on the numbers gathered.  But does it really solve the problem? Probably not. More tweaks and changes follow – anything to make the statistics better. After a while sales improve very slightly yet meanwhile, the competition continues to dominate the marketplace. Frustration sets in at the marketing department, as the steely promises of customer analytics ring hollow.

While this obsessive process continues, all eyes focus on the website – the rusty lock to which analytic data claims to be a key to unlock miraculous transformation. With its simple CMS, the website is far easier to change than any other aspect of the business. But while the key is rattling away in the lock, companies too often become deaf to the real need of the business; long, hard discussions that explore creative ways to improve the products and services on offer.

Dangerously, customer analytics carries such a pervasive sense of certainty that creative decision making begins to seem an impossibly risky strategy in comparison. The outlook that this thinking generates is fatal: analytics are the narrative of the past, not the future. Remaining competitive is about leading the market as much as it is about examining what your customers have already done. Winning from the front can only happen by looking at the future creatively, rather than the past empirically.

It’s worth remembering the words of Alan Kay, who is credited with inventing the graphical user interface (GUI):

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”