Friday, December 11, 2009

A Web Analytics challenge: the “Ignorance is bliss” syndrome!

The 3 monkeys feigning ignorance - like your stakeholders?
The biggest challenges with Web Analytics adoption are rarely the technology or the tools. Earlier this year, Econsultancy’s Online Measurement and Strategy Report listed top 11 barriers to effective online measurement. Technology was in last position. So where are the challenges hiding? They are in the organization, in the resources and…in the people & their entrenched mind-sets!

Challenge may even come also from where you would not expect it – from your business stakeholders – those for whom you directly work for! Are your audience prepared to face the truth? To become accountable? Or do they prefer to feign ignorance like the 3 monkeys(1)? After all what you don’t know can not hurt you, does it?

“Welcome to the real world!”
Imagine the following situation. An online marketer launches a new campaign microsite – a costly flashy one with HD videos, 3D CGI’s and spectacular design. The marketer is so proud of her/his creation, he/she shows it all around the place and especially to her/his boss. Everyone is impressed, the microsite even wins a web design award and the online marketer is more than happy – he is delighted! Now, how do you think she/he will react if you – the web analyst – come in with figures & facts that demonstrate that actually, the microsite is total disaster (from a business perspective)?

It is actually like parents: they are so proud of their babies who are the cutest & smartest in the world (here also I am talking from experience :-)). If you have friends who are parents and then you demonstrate them in a scientific & objective way that actually their kids are plain stupid and ugly, I am pretty sure they will not invite you for dinner anymore.

For business stakeholders, Web analytics is a (often painful) reality check in the beginning. It is saying “bye bye” to judgement based on gut feelings (welcome facts & figures!). Web Analytics is like taking the red pill in the Matrix movie – it shows them how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

Web Analytics - your online marketer red pill?
In such perspective, do the business stakeholders really want to know? The answer sounds obvious but do not underestimate this aspect. In the poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” (1742), Thomas Grays said “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise!”. From there came the proverb “ignorance is bliss” i.e. lack of knowledge results in happiness.

You, as the Web Analytics, you will bring knowledge and potentially put an end to some people happiness. Hoooo you evil!

Don’t shoot the messenger!
In old uncivilized times, it was a kind of custom to kill messengers with bad news. I am really happy that such times are over as otherwise I would been killed... a lot! :-)

As a Web analyst, you need to be prepared to bring bad news – especially when Web Analytics is new to your organisation. People gut feelings about their sites are often wrong. So be careful when bringing your bad news in the beginning. If you don’t, there is a risk that your stakeholders will start fleeing away when seeing you – like if you’ve got the Mexican flu.

This reality check is a necessity – no way to avoid it and it will often hurt in early stages. But people have to accept bad news – they have to know! Otherwise how the hell can they improve?

Communications skills are key!
Communications skills are often mentioned as an important trait of good Web analyst. I fully agree. Good communications skills are needed, not just for turning complex data into actionable insights but also in knowing how to bring bad news in a good way (so you don’t get killed).

Be careful how you announce bad newsYou can’t just come in and throw the truth in your stakeholder face (and start laughing in an evil manner). Be positive & constructive - don’t come with your hands empty, show your values, emphasizes the positive aspects and most of all bring recommendations for improvements (look especially for quick wins, small but easy to implement). Show there is hope!

A personal experience example
Let me illustrate this by a personal example. Few years ago, one of our marketing departments was all ecstatic about a brand new Flash content, full of 3D CGI’s & animations (in a time where these were not so common). It looked really top-class! But being curious (another Web analyst trait :-)), I decided to analyse the data. The results were not what everyone expected. The report probably ended its short life in the shredder or got locked forever in a drawer (and the key got thrown in a lake)).

But together with the report, there were a series of recommendations - some were really basic ones. Some of these were applied on the similar project that followed. Guess what? Results really were much better. But we did not stop there, and in a true Kaizen way, we looked again at other smaller improvements to make the next one even better (and we did :-)). All in a sudden, the reporting became important and the marketing people started to ask for more because it helped them to demonstrate their progress and good performances.

The final words
As a Web analyst, you may be seen as the "bad" guy by many of your colleagues so be prepared to sometimes face resistance from where you would not necessarily expect it. Do not under estimate this “psychological” aspect. You will need to put your best communications skills to good use, turning yourself in a “good news” messenger. The best way to do this is to show your added-value by bringing actionable insights – not just figures. That is what makes you a good Web analyst!

Your turn now. Did you ever face such situations? How do your stakeholders react when you bring them bad news? What is your best strategy in such cases? Share your experience!

Related posts & resources:

(1) Note that in Japan, the concept of the 3 wise monkeys refers to being of good mind, speech & action. It is in the western world, the phrase is often used to refer to those who deal with impropriety by looking the other way, refusing to acknowledge it, or feigning ignorance (thanks Wikipedia). In my post, I used the western interpretation of course.


  1. Michael, I can't agree more with you. And as Econsultancy unveiled, and as I also confirmed through my research on the Web Analytics Maturity Model, technology is the least of a problem.

    And as your little story highlights, the real challenge is with Management, Governance and Adoption (or simply put... how the business stakeholders "gets it").

    Incidentally, it also funny to watch all the replies to Eric Peterson's tweet "What is the #measure industry's biggest problem? I have my opinion. What's yours?".

    All of the answers, so far, can be categorized in one of the six critical factors of a successful online analytics driven organization.

  2. This is a topic I have put a lot of thought into, so this may be a bit long.

    There has been a lot of discussion recently in the community about the failed promises of web analytics, and while I will not attempt to pin all of the blame on this factor, I truly believe it is a significant one.

    Web analysts need to have a grasp of human emotion and have been involved in the work world long enough to understand the way it and people operate. Often I think we come off as cowboys, running into an office, calling everyone idiots and smirking while we demonstrate why.

    It sounds like common sense, but this is a very, very bad way to proceed, and the only thing it will accomplish is getting us kicked out of the room. We then go and pout in the corner because no one listens to how smart we are. Don't they get how stupid and wrong they are? What the heck is wrong with them? Where's our raise, the hookers the groupies and the cocaine?

    Part of being effective in this industry is learning where to pick your battles and learning when and where, and most importantly HOW to stick your nose into someone elses business.

    Once again this is common sense, but you need to build relationships with the people you are going to be critiquing. This is easy to do-- since any reasonable sized company has PLENTY of positives to highlight. Did a small team in your company put a lot of effort into something? Go hunting for the results-- trumpet the successes and show that you cared enough to go looking for positives in the work someone else did.

    Recognize that if something DID go wrong, that it's easy to criticize from the sidelines. Evaluate the reasoning behind the decision-- if your critique is especially damaging, point out how the thought behind it was perfectly legitimate, but it just didn't work out. Give them an out to try again, but this time with the lessons learned.

    In short, don't back people into corners. Treat people as you would expect to be treated, and help them do their job better-- this does not include humiliating them. It should be common sense, but sadly, I don't think it is.

    Great post, completely spot on, and IMO revealing to some of the real challenges in this industry that are glossed over with fancy charts and the idea that everything is utopian when numbers come into the mix.

  3. @Stephane: Thanks for the feedback. Technology is the easy target - let's blame the tools when the results are not the ones expected or when people fails to get the insights they want. But yes, I strongly believe that the problem is often elsewhere -whether at people level (HiPPO's, lack of understanding...), organization (no process) or governance (no roadmap, no strategy).

    And yes, all these aspects are covered by your model. But you know how a fan of the WAMM I am :-)

  4. @alexbrasil: thanks a lot for taking the time to share your thoughts.

    Many things in WA (or any discipline) sounds like common sense but - well - failed to be applied in reality.

    I agree that we - Web analyst - can easily make the error of being arrogant or not cautious enough.

    Business stakeholders will support WA if they can see something positive in it - just blaming and bringing bad news isn't really positive attitude :-)

    Sometimes they will be interested in WA only if it serves them the way the want. For example: after a major redesign of a site, the manager will come to you asking "can you provide me figures that show our site is doing better since the redesign?" The question is biased as the stakeholder only wants to hear good news (the site must be doing better). If you don't, you are likely to be ignored :-) Here again, diplomacy is key.

    However there are occasions where a good "electric shock" is necessary (no more mister nice guy) - to make thing moves. But to be done cautiously :-)

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Hi Michael,

    Great post!

    The Online Measurement and Strategy Report 2009 found that the barriers to effective online measurement are remarkably consistent year-on-year no matter the tool.

    While investment in staff increased and technology spend decreased this year compared to last, there is clearly an underlying skills shortage and lack of maturity at the levels required (especially in the UK and Western Europe in my opinion).

    As Andrew Hood (Lynchpin MD) points out in the survey, as the technology gets more sophisticated, the challenges of interpreting the data increase. We are at a level where the two are not yet in synergy (again mostly in Western Europe).

    Given the above, and the pertinent points in the post about the lack of maturity in the industry which leads to common sense deficiencies, experiences like yours and papers like the WAMM are going to be a huge step in helping people 'get there'.

    Kevin Middleton
    Lynchpin Analytics (Online Measurement and Strategy Report Sponsors)


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