Measuring your successes and failures

Paul Boag

(S01:E02) What is the point of making changes to your website if you have no real way to tell whether it is an improvement or not? Stop guessing. Start measuring.

In the last post of this series I focused on the importance of business objectives. However there is no point defining business objectives unless we track whether those objectives are being fulfilled. Too many of us act on gut instinct and fail to analyse whether we are actually achieving what we set out to do. When we do decide that some form of measurement is required, we often become caught up in the functionality of the tool we are using rather than what we a trying to measure.

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Focus on goals not tools

Be honest. When you last opened Google Analytics did you know what you were looking for? Most of us don’t. We might look at page views, unique visitors and dwell time and if the numbers are going up, we are happy. However, what do these figures really tell us? Are they actually that much help?

The number of page views or visitors are really only useful in the early days of your website, when you are trying to build an audience, and even then, it is more a reflection of your marketing skills than the effectiveness of your website. Unfortunately, most of us never move beyond these basic figures to examine the data that really tells us whether we are meeting our business objectives.

Geek installs Google Analytics with no idea what he is looking for

Part of the problem is that we let the tool dictate what we measure. We install Google Analytics because that ‘tracks stuff’ but don’t really consider whether it is the right tool for the job, or what we need to know to measure the success of meeting our business objectives.When we do open the app we tend to look at the default information it offers at the top level and use that as our measure of success. Instead, we should be using it to track our real objectives.

Worse still, I often hear website owners say their business objective cannot be tracked. Often this is because they are limited in their thinking to the tools they currently have. It is certainly true that Google Analytics cannot track everything. However with a little lateral thinking and effort to find the right tools, anything can be tracked.

Everything is trackable. Well, almost

It is fair to say that some business objectives are easier to track than others. For example, if your objective is to increase sales by 30% over the next quarter, this is fairly easy to track through the reporting tools on your ecommerce platform. Equally, if you want to increase the number of people who signup to your newsletter it is relatively easy to build or buy a tool that would allow you to track those figures.

Website owner is unable to track what the boss wants

However, some objectives are not so easy to track. What if you are looking to improve how your brand is perceived online or increase levels of customer satisfaction? These are much harder to track. Although defining these objectives can still be used as a plumb line for decision making, they do lose their power if they cannot be tracked. So what am I saying? Am I suggesting you should give up attempting to track these kinds of business objectives? Not at all. In fact I believe that with a bit of lateral thinking and a willingness to compromise it is possible to track almost anything.

Let’s say you wanted to track the leads generated through your website. Tracking enquiries submitted through a contact us form is easy. However, what about email? What about those that pick up the phone and call you? With a bit of thought even these can be tracked. What about creating an email address that is shown nowhere other than on the website? You can even have a unique telephone number that would allow you to track enquiries from the site. You don’t even need to be that advanced. Sometimes it is enough to simply ask people whether they visited the website. It doesn’t need to be rocket science.

Another example of these more challenging business objectives is perception. How do you measure whether the website is improving how people perceive your brand? Believe it or not, even something as nebulous as perception is possible to track.

Social Mention

To begin with, there are online web apps that allow you to track mentions of your brand and whether they have a positive or negative context. You could also run design testing to see what words users associate with your website. Both of these approaches would give you an indication of whether changes to your site are improving the way your brand is perceived.

Finally what about something like a museum? One of their aims might be to encourage more people to visit the museum. How can you tell whether new visitors came after seeing the website? One way would be to offer coupon codes, discounts or other offers that can be redeemed at the museum. If you give 20% off the entrance fee if they mention the website, this would allow you to easily track who had come through that route.

Of course, none of these methods are not perfect. They have some obvious holes that could compromise the results you receive. However, I would argue that some data is better than none. Better to track what you can rather than make changes with no way of telling whether they are an improvement or not. Ultimately it comes down to looking for the best tool available and being creative in the way you use it.

Finding the right tool for the job

I am amazed at just how many free tools are available to help track online activity but ultimately you need the ability to do just two things, collect data and display that data in some usable format. That doesn’t always require a fancy web app. After all, even a simple spreadsheet can do that. So can pen and paper.

I have already mentioned stats tools, such as Google Analytics, and tools for tracking online brand perceptions. However, this is just the tip of a very big iceberg. There are tools such as Postrank Analytics which track engagement with your website through sites like Twitter, Facebook and Delicious. There are also tools like Feedburner, which track and manages subscriptions to email newsletters and RSS feeds. You also have the option to run polls and surveys on your website for tracking customer satisfaction.

There are even tools, such as Get Satisfaction and User Voice, which allow users to submit improvements they think could be made to your site or products. It is even possible to use usage-analysis services like Click Tales to build up a detailed picture of how users are interacting with your site. Finally, for those with bigger budgets there are numerous Customer Relationship Management systems (CRM) for recording all kinds of data about those users with whom you interact.

Get Satisfaction

However, these kinds of data gathering and reporting tools are not the only weapons in your arsenal. You can also learn a lot about your site’s effectiveness through user testing, focus groups and individual interviews. By carrying out these exercises regularly it is easy to build up a range of evidence of whether the changes you are making to the site are working.
Of course, we shouldn’t just be measuring our successes. We also need to track where things are going wrong so they can be improved.

Tracking your failures

All websites have weaknesses and it is important that we know exactly what they are in order to do something about them. What is more, websites develop new weaknesses over time. As content is added, structure is changed, and designs are tweaked, we introduce problems into our sites that were not there before. We need a system in place that continually monitors for these failures so that they can be addressed quickly before causing too much damage.

Implementing such a system does not need to be onerous. It simply consists of three simple reviews that should take place on a monthly basis. These are:

  • Monthly user testing – If you haven’t read Steve Krug’s latest book (Rocket Surgery Made Easy) then do so!
  • Identifying dropout points – Use Google Analytics to look at where users are leaving your website and ask why they are leaving at that point.
  • Analyse search queries – Examine what users are searching for both on referring engines and on the site itself. This gives an excellent insight into their needs.

Editors Note: This article is covered in considerably more depth in Paul’s latest book ‘Building websites for return on investment‘. Buy two copies today… actually make it three ;)

What next?

Business objectives are almost pointless without the ability to track them. However, with a little creative thinking it is possible to track almost everything.

However remember not to be seduced by the tool itself and that tracking your failures are as important as tracking your successes.

With this in mind, what actions should you be taking?

Action 1: Find the right tool

Once you have a list of business objectives the next step is to work out what tool or technique will enable you to track them. For some examples to get you started make sure you read the suggested tracking techniques section.

Action 2: Install Google Analytics

If you are going to track dropout points and search queries you will need to have a web statistics package running. Although there are a lot of solutions out there I would recommend Google Analytics. It is free and there is a lot of help available on how to use it.

Action 3: Arrange monthly user testing

I cannot stress enough the benefits of ongoing usability testing. Arrange a day each month when you can test. Also, read Steve Krug’s book Rocket Surgery Made Easy. It will be invaluable.

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