Thursday, 28 August 2014

Telling a Story with Web Analytics Data

Management demands actionable insights - not just numbers, but KPIs, words, sentences and recommendations.  It's therefore essential that we, as web analysts and optimisers, are able to transform data into words - and better still, stories.  Consider a report with too much data and too little information - it reads like a science report, not a business readout:

Consider a report concerning four main characters;
Character A: female, aged 7 years old.  Approximately 1.3 metres tall.
Character B:  male, aged 5 years old.
Character C: female, aged 4 years old.
Character D:  male, aged 1 year old.

The main items in the report are a small cottage, a 1.2 kw electric cooker, 4 pints of water, 200 grams of dried cereal and a number of assorted iron and copper vessels, weighing 50-60 grams each.

After carrying out a combination of most of the water and dried cereal, and in conjunction with the largest of the copper vessels, Character B prepared a mixture which reached around 70 degrees Celsius.  He dispensed this unevenly into three of the smaller vessels in order to enable thermal equilibrium to be formed between the mixture and its surroundings.  Characters B, C and D then walked 1.25 miles in 30 minutes, averaging just over 4 km/h.  In the interim, Character A took some empirical measurements of the chemical mixture, finding Vessel 1 to still be at a temperature close to 60 degrees Celsius, Vessel 2 to be at 70 degrees Fahrenheit and Vessel 3 to be at 315 Kelvin, which she declares to be optimal.

The report continues with Character A consuming all of the mixture in Vessel 3, then single-handedly testing (in some case destruction testing) much of the furniture in the small cottage.

The problem is:  there's too much data and not enough information. 

The information is presented in various formats - lists, sentences and narrative.

Some of it the data is completely irrelevant (the height of Character A, for example)
Some of it is misleading (the ages of the other characters lacks context);
Some of it is presented in a mish-mash of units (temperatures are stated four times, with three different units).
The calculation of the speed of the walking characters is not clear - the distance is given in miles; the time is given in minutes; and the speed in kilometres per hour (if you are familiar with the abbreviation km/h).

Of course, this is an exaggeration, and as web analytics professionals, we wouldn't do this kind of thing in our reporting. 

Visitors are called visitors, and we consistently refer to them as visitors (and we ensure that this definition is understood among our readers)
Conversion rates are based on visitors, even though this may require extra calculation since our tools provide figures based on visits (or sessions)
Percentage of traffic coming from search is quoted as visitors (not called users), and not visits (whether you use visitors or visits is up to you, but be consistent)
Would you include number of users who use search?  And the conversion rate for users of search?
And when you say 'Conversion', are you consistenly talking about 'user added an item to cart', or 'user completed a purchase and saw the thank-you page'?
Are you talking about the most important metrics?
Too much data, not enough information?
So - make sure, for starters, that your units and data and KPIs are consistent, contextual, or at least make sense. And then:  add the words to the numbers.  It's only the start to say that: "We attracted 500 visitors with paid search, at a total cost of £1,200."  Go on to talk about the cost per visitor, break it down into key details by talking about the most expensive keywords, and the ones that drove the most traffic.  But then tell the story:  there's a sequence of events between user seeing your search term, clicking on your ad, visiting your site, and [hopefully] converting.  Break it down into chronological steps and tell the story!

There are various ways to ensure that you're telling the story; my favourites are to answer these types of questions:
"You say that metric X has increased by 5%.  Is that a lot?  Is that good?"
 "WHY has this metric gone up?"
"What happened to our key site performance indicators (profit, revenue, conversion) as a result?"
and my favourite
"What should we do about it?"

Character A
There are, of course, various ways to hide the story, or disguise results that are not good (i.e. do not meet sales or revenue targets) - I did this in my anecdote at the start. However, management tend to start looking at incomplete data, or data that's obscure or irrelevant, and go on to ask about the data that's "missing"... so the truth will out, so it's better to show the data, tell the whole story, and highlight why things are below par. 

It's our role to highlight when performance is down - we should be presenting the issues (nobody else has the tools to do so) and then going on to explain what needs to be done - this is where actionable insights become invaluable.  In the end, we present the results and the recommendations and then let the management make the decision - I blogged about this some time ago - web analytics: who holds the steering wheel?

In the case of Characters A, B, C and D, I suggest that Characters B and C buy a microwave oven, and improve their security to prevent Character A from breaking into their house and stealing their breakfast.  In the case of your site, you'll need to use the data to tell the story.

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