Monthly Archives: November 2007

Data, Analysis, Insight

Poor BI; still struggling with broader adoption – as outlined by Ron in the post Four BS BI Trends (And One Good One).  So Gartner identifies BI as the “number one technology issue for 2007” then immediately pulls out this old chestnut as BI Trend #1: There’s so much data, but too little insight.

Sigh. 

Then I get this comment by Ron Patiro asking: Besides simply not being actionable, what are some of the common pitfalls and tangles of metrics that analysts get themselves into in the pursuit of engagement?

These two ideas are closely related.  The “common pitfalls and tangles of metrics” are often the reason people get a “so much data, but too little insight” experience.  Let’s explore these issues a bit.

The primary reason you get a “so much data, but too little insight” situation – if you have an analyst to work with the data – is indeed the actionable analysis problem, as Ron P.  points out.  But, there are at least 3 versions of the actionable analysis problem, one obvious and two not so obvious:

  • Producing analysis that isn’t actionable at all
  • Producing analysis that is valid but too complex to be actionable, and
  • Failing to act correctly on a valid and easy to understand analysis

And often, I find the Root Cause of these three problems (to answer Ron P’s question) to be faulty segmentation logic.  This condition in turn often is born of a situation many web analysts are familiar with by now: No Clear Objective.  But let’s leave the segmentation discussion for later and examine each of three cases above.

One cause of the “too much data, no insight” experience is producing analysis that isn’t actionable at all; it’s literally worthless and cannot be acted upon.  This is the most common vision of the “actionable analysis problem but probably not the one causing the majority of the negative outcomes. Analysis can be “actionable” from the analyst’s perspective, but not the business perspective.  And if no actual business action takes place, no real insight is gained.

In my experience, people spend an incredible amount of time analyzing things that will never create impact.  Even if the analysis produces something that looks actionable, often the execution is impractical or financially irrelevant and so is not acted upon.  Just because you can “find a pattern” does not mean the business can do anything productive with that pattern.  Randomly “mining for gold” is one of the biggest time wasters around, and why people are often dissatisfied with the result they get from black box data mining projects.  You have to start with an actual business problem of some kind, preferably one that if solved, will increase sales or reduce costs, or no action will be taken.  Otherwise, you have simply created more data to add to the “too much data” side of the problem.

The bottom line for this slice of the problem: The intent and result of the analysis might be actionable, but unless there is a clear business case for acting, you have just contributed to the actionable analysis problem.  In other words, there is a difference between an analysis being “actionable” and having people actually act on it.

The 2nd slice of the “too much data, no insight” problem occurs when the analysis is too complex.   In Marketing at least, complexity introduces error, and probably more importantly, hinders the explanation of the analysis to people who might take action and gain insight.  If a Marketing person can’t understand the analysis, how are they going to formulate a campaign or program to address the problem, never mind get budget to act on the analysis?  Please note I’m talking about the analysis, not solving the problem itself.  Often, an elegantly simple analysis uncovers a problem that will be quite complex to solve.  These are two different issues.

In fact, I would go as far as to say the more complex the problem is to be solved, the more elegantly simple the analysis needs to be.  The reason is this: the most complex Marketing / Customer problems are usually cross-functional in nature, and to drive success in a cross-functional project, you need rock-simple analysis that galvanizes the team without a lot of second-guessing on the value of a successful outcome.

The bottom line for this slice of the problem: An analysis might be correct and even actionable, but too complex to be acted on.  Complexity opens the analysis up to (often accurate) disbelief in the conclusion, action never takes place, so insight is lost. The 3rd “too much data, no insight” problem is failure to translate a valid and easy to understand analysis into the correct action.  Here, we are finally moving out of the analytics side of the problem (delivering actionable analysis) and into the Business side.

Why is there failure to act correctly?  I’d submit to you it goes back to the Deconstruction of Marketing – most marketing folks simply don’t understand what to do with “people” as opposed to “Reach and Frequency”.  In other words, they can’t conceptualize how to act successfully against the individual or behavioral segment level as opposed to the nameless, faceless demographic level.

In my opinion, this is the primary reason why demographics are so overused in customer analysis, especially online – the marketing folks simply can’t get out of that box, i’s where the “actionability” starts for them.  The problem with this thought process, as has been pointed out, is that demographics often have little to do with behavior.  Behavior predicts behavior; demographics are mostly coincidental.  Yet the analyst, looking to produce a successful project, often will allow themselves to be dragged into endless demographic segmentation that is primarily a waste of time (unless you are a media site and sell demos) and leads to false conclusions, which lead to failed or inconsistent implementation.

The bottom line for this slice of the problem: the analysis identified a problem or opportunity, but in the end, the execution against the analysis was flawed and ultimately delivered poor or no real insight.  By the way, I think this third form of failure to deliver insight is the most common – much more common than most people think.  Why?  I’s the hidden one, the one that’s not so obvious and much easier to push under the table.

So there you have it.  Three versions of the “actionable analysis” problem that lead directly to the “so much data, but too little insight” issue.  I think #3 is probably the most prevalent; a lot of analysis “fails” not because of poor analysis, but poor execution against the analysis.

What do you think?  Have you delivered a clearly actionable analysis, one that is capable of real business impact, only to have the execution against the analysis botched?

Perhaps more importantly, were you able to do anything about the botched execution?  Were you able to turn it around?  How did you make that happen?

Or, is execution not really your problem – if Marketing (or whoever) screws it up, then they screw it up?

KFI’s: Key Forecast Indicators

As I said in my presentation at the eMetrics / Marketing Optimization Summit, if you want to get C-Level people to start paying attention to web analytics, you have to get into the business of predicting / forecasting.  Let’s face it, KPI’s are about the past, right?  You don’t know “Performance” until it has already happened.

But C-folks don’t really care much about what has already happened, because they can’t do anything about it.  What they really want to know is what you think will happen.  For example, ideas like “sales pipeline” – a forecast.  If you start forecasting – and you are right – you will get attention from the C-folks pronto.  The web is a great forecasting tool because it’s so frictionless; it tends to provide tangible signals before many other parts of the business.

So: Do you have any KFI’s – Key Forecast Indicators?

I have one for the Lab Store, and it tripped about 2 months ago.  It’s the Unwanted Exotic Index (UEI).

As part of the Lab Store, we run a moderated board where people who want to give up exotic pets can post the availability, and people looking for exotic pets can post requests.  Typically, the ratio of people giving them up to wanting them is about .25 – for every post looking to give an exotic up, there are 4 posts looking to adopt.

A couple of months ago, this ratio starts popping higher.  A couple of weeks ago it hit 1.25 – for every 5 posts looking to give up an exotic there were 4 posts looking to adopt.  The last time something like this happened was prior to the mini-recession of 2004, when the Unwanted Exotic Index tagged 1.0 for a short time.  After this happened, our sales got soft about 2 – 3 months later.

Why is the UEI predictive?  Let’s go through the logic – my logic, anyway!

Keeping certain types of exotic animals can be a strain on a family, both from a time and money perspective.  They can be high maintenance.  On the margin, as the economy gets tougher and people look to manage household budgets, these pets can get some scrutiny – particularly if kids have lost interest or gone off to college.  So more go up for adoption.  At the same time, requests to adopt fall, as families who might have considered an exotic pet put the “owning decision” on hold.  Taken together, these decisions cause the UEI to spike higher.  Both giving up and deciding not to own exotic pets affects Lab Store revenues “expected” in the future.  So the UEI ends up being predictive of future demand.

Makes sense to me.

Now, I’m a pretty good student of macroeconomics and pay attention to many economic indicators, especially predictive ones like the ECRI’s US Weekly Leading Index.  If you’re an analyst, you should too; economic indicators provide context for any analysis you might have to do, and clients often want to understand the impact of these external issues on their business.

As far as the Lab Store specifically, I don’t usually pay much attention to the macroeconomic cycles.  The pet business tends to be insensitive to the economic cycle; people don’t stop caring for pets as the economy wobbles up and down.  That’s why it’s such a good business – if you can find a niche.  So I don’t get too concerned when I see these predictive macroeconomic indexes forecasting a slowing economy.

However, what we have here with our Unwanted Exotic Index is a confirmation of the broader economic forecasting tools that is specific to our exotic pet business.  That makes me sit up and take notice!  Looks like our business is setting up for a repeat of the 2004 slowdown – the last time the UEI spiked like this.  Why is this important?  Because I can do something with this knowledge.  I can re-allocate and re-prioritize based on this knowledge.  For example, I can move from a “grow bigger” to a “grow smarter” mode.

And please note: this KFI has nothing to do with traffic or sales on the web site; traffic and sales are “rear view”.  By the time you see the sales slow down it will be too late to do anything about it.  And that’s why the C-folks don’t care much about web analytics reports.  

You could track an index like the UEI with a web analytics tool, but you’d have to come up with the idea first.  My point is you will probably have to look outside the usual “rear view” metrics to find one with forecasting ability.  I caution you not to substitute a “survey” for a predictive model; people’s opinions are a notoriously lagging indicator.  You’ll be up to your ears in the slowdown before people start turning bearish.

So: Do you have any KFI’s – Key Forecast Indicators?  Tell us about them. 

If you don’t have any KFI’s, now is the time to start looking for them.  What can you see now that predicts what will happen in the future?  Think about the business, think about the data sources, and put together a bunch of different ideas.  Track them back a couple of years and post them monthly going forward.  You’re bound to find something predictive.  Perhaps something about posting, like the UEI.  Recommendations / comments as a percent of visitors or something like that.

If you’re stuck, start with a simple “engagement” idea – percent visitors / members / customers who visited / logged in / bought in the past 90 days.  If this percentage is falling, so will your business in the next 3 – 6 months.  If your business has a lot of seasonality in it, look to year-over-year comps of the same metric.

If you’ve never played this game before, you won’t have proof your KFI’s work until after the business is in the soup, but you’ll be ready with accurate and actionable KFI’s the next time around!