Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Web analyst – the poor lonesome cowboy?

Last month, the 2nd Web Analytics Camp was held in Lille, France. The principle behind the WA camp is to have informal conferences (or "non-conferences" as the organizers define it) around different topics. By limiting the presentation time, the audience get a chance to participate, to give feedback and to ask questions. This year event was built around two different themes: "innovation in Web analytics" and "the profession of web analyst".

The idea behind the second track was to have a number of practitioners coming to share their views about their job, their role in the organization, their experience or the challenges they are facing. I had the pleasure to be one of the practitioners together with 4 other web analysts from various sectors and experience (from few months to several years):
  • Marie Cappelaere from Monabanq (Internet banking), "10 good reflexes to have as a Web analyst"
  • Sophie Néron from Boulanger (retail, e-commerce), "10 winning tactics to develop a Web analytics culture in your organization"
  • Olivier Guillaume from Becquet (retail, e-commerce), « My first 5 impressions as a Web analyst"
  • Carole Da Silva - Guillot from Reed Expositions (events organization), "5 successful processes for managing Web analytics in a multiple-sites context”
On my side, my presentation aimed at giving a quick view of the Web analyst main traits, inspired from the "Web analytics, a new profession?" post I wrote last year in the context of the “A journey into Web analytics”. The idea was to show that working in Web analytics isn’t just about tagging a website, mastering a tool and extracting numbers into an Excel sheet.

Despite the fact that each presentation and experience were different, several aspects kept coming back creating a feeling of “déjà-vu” for the 5 of us.

When marketing meets technology
The first one that made a consensus was that Web analytics requires a strong mix of “technical” and “marketing/business” knowledge. While a Web analyst doesn’t have necessarily to be a Web programmer, it is important to have a good technical knowledge about most common Web technologies and data collection mechanisms. It is crucial to be able to translate business requirements into practical implementation, to know what are the possibilities and limitations. One can’t interpret the data nor guarantee its quality without a good understanding of the Web and data collection methods.

But you don’t do Web analytics for the sake of technology. Web analytics first serves a business purpose. Therefore, technical skills have to be complemented by a strong knowledge and understanding of the business environment. Context is key - You can’t put in place de right KPI’s and metrics, you can’t put the right meaning without being business-minded. You need to work closely with the business or better, be part of it :-).

Educate your organization you will
It is probably a bit cliché but most people imagine that the biggest part of the Web analyst job is to look at figures and create fancy Excel dashboards full of tables, charts and pies. What an exciting job it would be! Because today there is clear lack of understanding about the role of Web analytics and what added value it can bring to organizations, we have to spend a significant part of our time educating people, helping give a business meaning to online data.

Most people are not familiar with concepts that we use on a daily basis and that may look like a no-brainer for us. Remember the time it took you to get where you are? :-) It is key to invest enough time in explaining things – because if you want business stakeholders to act on your data – they have to trust it. And there can’t be any trust if they don’t understand it.

Web analytics is not just about...Web
Many people wrongly think that Web Analytics is limited to the Web area. Web analytics is actually a cross-functional discipline that can benefit other departments – if not the whole organization sometimes. Simply those other business functions ignore it.

Therefore pro-activity is essential. It is part of our duty as Web analysts to look for opportunities to show the value of online insights. Don’t stay idle waiting for people to come to you. Go evangelize them! And seize opportunities when they arise.

Sophie Néron from Boulanger gave a very interesting example. In a previous job – working for a French retail company, someone from the Product team wanted to add new licensed products (such as Disney "Cars” or “Hello Kitty” bed sheets for example) to their offer but wanted to know if there was real demand for it. Sophie went to have a look at internal search results to see what kind of licensed products were searched by customers but not present in the current offering. Using this knowledge, her company was able to identify real business opportunities that were successfully added to its product catalogue.

"Boo hoo hoo, I am all alone!"
There was one point that I didn’t think about but that instantly made me react when it was first mentioned by Marie from Monabanq: the “loneliness” of the Web analyst.

The awareness about Web analytics has quite increased here in Belgium and in France – companies are starting to hire Web analysts. But you won’t see that many that have more than one analyst in their staff. So, as a Web analyst, you are often on your own, having to handle a lot of different activities, to face a constantly increasing demand (as you educate people around and as they come to you, asking for help), to find solution to complex problems without anyone to turn to for help. A very, very familiar feeling I must say.

The danger here  is to get overwhelmed by all the requests – especially “reporting” requests (or data pukes” as Avinash Kaushik calls these) that are not only time-consuming but also lacking added-value. You should concentrate on putting your expertise to good use, where it adds value i.e. “analysis” (if you don't know what qualifies as an "analysis" then check out Avinash's recent post).

To avoid that, there are two things you should do:
  • Automated what can be automated: Analysis can't be automated but reporting should be. This will free up a LOT of time.
  • Train people on how to get the data they need – make them responsible and self-reliant for such kind of tasks. Note that training and education are two different things.
Both require an investment in time but it definitely worth it on the long term otherwise you will find yourself entangled in the mass of data requests. Once you get stuck in there, it is damned hard to get out of it.

No, you are not alone
But are we, web analysts, that alone? Are we coming home under the sunset like Lucky Luke, the cowboy, singing “I am a poor lonesome analyst...”? :-) No, we are not.

One great thing in our discipline – that I mentioned in a past post – is our incredible community. There are so many ways to get help today – via Twitter, the Yahoo WA forum, blogs and others. Of course, you can’t ask others to do your data pukes for you but the community is readily available whenever you need advices to tackle problems or to get feedback on analysis questions.

Informal events like the WA camp or the Web Analytics Wednesdays are also a great antidote against that "loneliness" feeling (it does work!). These are also great opportunities to learn from others, to meet peers who may be helpful later on. Don’t go there just for the free drinks...

In the end, I am confident that we, all the speakers, uccessfully demonstrated that working in analytics is far from being a dull job – where you just stick your head all day long in figures & excel dashboards, all alone in a dark cave. The questions and feedback we got from the audience supported that impression.

And you how do you see the profession of Web analyst? Do you feel like a poor lonesome cowboy sometimes? What’s your secret antidote against loneliness?

I would like to thank you to Nicolas Malo and to the WA Camp organizers for such great event – I look forward for next year edition! Now, I need to go. The sun is setting down and Jolly Jumper, my horse is waiting for me. Cheers!

(Check here for the Lucky Lucke "Poor lonesome cowboy" theme :-))

Related posts & resources:


  1. Hello Michael,

    Many thanks for your contribution to the Web Analytics Camp and for this great blog post!


  2. We are looking for a web analyst!! If you know of anyone interested please have them go to and look for Signature Hardware and the Senior Web Analyst position. Thanks!

  3. A decent web analyst is hard to find, they need to be able to talk different languages - one to the tech team in implementing their tools, and another to the marketing/business team in making them understand the performance. I have hired Web Analysts and am one myself and what I have tended to do is to hire people that I perceive have the basics and are quick and eager to learn... that has stood me in great stead.

    An experienced Website Analyst in the UK.

  4. Chris: Thanks for sharing your feedback - always glad to get views from experienced people.

    Technical skills can be taught quite "easily" - there are plenty of trainings for that. It is much more complicated for the soft skills and the analytical "mind". Finding the good mix is a quite challenge I must admit.



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