OPINION: You lead data, it doesn’t lead you

2 Jan 2013

Gareth Dunlop, owner of user-experience consultancy Fathom

The wealth of analytical data which digital marketers have access to empowers us to make really good communication decisions. However, we must never slavishly respond to the data in isolation, without measuring it against strategic business and marketing objectives.

The key principle at play is that analytics can only ever be a reflection of currently implemented strategy. Therefore, data is much better at answering the question “are we running our current strategy to the highest possible levels of efficiency?” than at addressing the question “is this the correct strategy?”

Henry T Ford famously had no interest in market research and relied only on his genius and single-mindedness in his pursuit of building and democratising cars. “If I’d asked people what they wanted they’d have asked for faster horses,” he quipped. He understood that he needed to lead, rather than respond to public opinion and behaviour.

Take Facebook, for example

While not everything which leaves the Facebook PR department should be taken as gospel, a consistently emerging theme is that initial user feedback for many new features has been overwhelmingly negative. When the news feed, now a fundamentally important part of Facebook’s user experience, was introduced, users threatened to leave the service in their thousands.

It seems unthinkable now that many users preferred viewing only their own wall as the default, thus having to make visits to the pages of their friends and fan organisations (remember the humble fan page?) to catch up on the latest gossip.

For example, the news feed upgrade in March 2009 brought for the first time a focus on what friends were saying. Friends’ information was always available, however, Facebook moved away from a heavy algorithmic approach to wall content and replaced it with a focus on friends, in particular their voices (status updates and photo uploads) rather than activities (attending events and joining groups).  While initial feedback was negative, Facebook strategically was insistent that this was the type of platform it wished to build.

Data should always inform the discussion, but the debate must always start with strategy and customers.

Imagine you were responsible for the website of an energy company and your analytics told you that the most popular page on the site was ‘make a complaint’. In the absence of strategy, you may consider putting this facility on the home page. In the presence of marketing strategy, through implementation of persona analysis, identifying prospective customers as primary persona means that the home page information is dominated with the needs of the primary persona (joining up, becoming a customer, advantages of your product). Current customers (to whom the ‘make a complaint’ feature is relevant) will have to work harder to fulfil their task if it is to make a complaint.

Data, what it is good for?

Data is easy to collect and understand when you have large volumes of traffic which can be quickly understood, there are clear metrics for good versus bad and its cost is low.

So it’s excellent for understanding sign-up rates and e-commerce product display page conversion rates, but almost useless for understanding customer loyalty, general long-term customer perceptions of your interface design, or the overall impact of new features.

Perhaps the folks at Facebook deserve the last word. One desired behaviour they identified was seeking to dissuade users from leaving the network. Understanding fully that this was a strategic endeavour they sought to increase the number of users who changed their minds before they got to the end of the ‘delete my account’ process. Data informed them that a leaving page which said ‘your friends will be really sad to see you go’ with pictures of the 10 friends with the greatest number of social media interactions was much more effective at achieving this aim than ‘here are 10 great reasons to stay on Facebook’.

Once strategy is established, data will be invaluable in helping you implement it. But understand your data’s parameters and don’t build your strategy solely around what it tells you.

Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop owns and runs Fathom, a user-experience consultancy which helps ambitious organisations get the most from their websites and internet marketing by viewing the world from the perspective of their customers. Specialist areas include user testing, usability and customer journey planning, web accessibility and integrated online marketing. Clients include Irish Internet Association, The Irish Times, Ogilvy, MD Golf and Web Recruit.

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products.