Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Web Analytics Is Dead. So Is Customer Centricity. I Need a Drink.

Summary: Web analytics is merging into the broad world of marketing measurement across all media, which itself is shifting focus from tracking individuals to understanding group behavior. Although Web analytics and marketing automation vendors are currently wrestling over who will house customer data, both are likely to lose custody to enterprises who want to control their data for themselves.

Even as analysts are still sorting through the implications of last week’s acquisition of Omniture by Adobe, the industry saw two additional important announcements this week: Omniture combining its data with comScore to help measure Web advertising audiences, and Nielsen working with Facebook to poll consumers on advertising impact.

Both announcements share several interesting features: they don't rely on traditional Web analytics (tracking page views); they involve vendors who report data from consumer panels; and they relate to measuring advertising measurement. Maybe they coincided simply because the big Advertising Week conference is now under way. But I think they, along with the Omniture/Adobe deal itself, hint at something more profound: the end of Web analytics as we know it.

Ok, that may not be as earth-shattering as the end of several other things you might imagine. But many marketers are just getting their arms around traditional Web analytics. So it’s worth warning them that things are about to change again.

Smarter Content on the Way

Let’s start with Omniture/Adobe. After thinking about it for a week (and hearing what the participants said), I think the main purpose of the deal was to let Adobe build content that was more intelligent in two ways:

- First, the content will be inherently “instrumented” to report how, when, where and which people are consuming it, using techniques go beyond traditional Web analytics methods (server logs, Javascript tags and cookies). This is needed because content increasingly exists outside of plain vanilla Web pages that can be tracked with conventional techniques. Problems include Flash, video, audio and other non-HTML Web content; venues like mobile, digital video recorders and interactive TV; widgets that migrate through social networks; and plain old cookie deletion. Web analytics vendors are striving to extend their technologies to capture these, but at some point you have to look for a different basic model. Content that can itself “phone home” rather than relying on the carrier medium could be the long-term answer.

- Second, content will be self-optimizing. This involves built-in tests and, perhaps, a sort of swarm intelligence where subsequent views are actually modified based on previous results reported by the content itself. Imagine a widget with a built-in A/B headline test: every time someone accesses it, the widget offers one headline or the other, and reports the result to a central server. (This could be done without transmitting personally identifiable information, so privacy issues are minimal.) Once a pattern emerges, the server could instruct the distributed widgets to only display the winning headline, or, better still, to start a new test. Even without a central server, each copy of the widget could still run its own test and, assuming it’s accessed enough times, adjust all by itself.

Who Owns The Data?

So far so good, and I think that’s plenty of reason to justify spending $1.8 billion for Omniture. But I also think Adobe was interested in the fact that Omniture controls so much of its clients’ data.

There is a battle brewing over that issue: like most Web analytics vendors, Omniture stores Web traffic data on its own servers and sells clients the ability to access that data. That didn’t raise any particular business issues when Web data was viewed largely in isolation. But as the Web takes an increasingly central role in customer contacts, marketers need to merge that Web data with their other customer information. Indeed, if you want to use that data to help guide customer interactions across channels, the data must be not just centralized but also updated in real-time. That means marketers either give all their non-Web data to their Web analytics vendor, or directly capture Web analytics data on their own servers.

The Web analytics vendors see this future and recognize that they’ll be more important to their clients, and thus able to charge higher fees, if they hold everything. Marketing automation vendors and in-house IT groups see the same future and recognize the threat to their own positions. Thus, the business-oriented marketing automation vendors (i.e., demand generation vendors: Eloqua, Silverpop, Marketo, etc.) already capture Web behavior in their own systems and integrate it directly with customer management. The big consumer-oriented marketing automation vendors (SAS, Teradata, Unica) also offer Web analytics, although perhaps less tightly integrated.

The problem here is that the Web analytics vendors and demand generation vendors are largely SaaS systems, so both hold the integrated customer data outside of the client’s own data center. It’s not clear that clients – especially big enterprise clients – will continue to accept this. The consumer-oriented marketing automation vendors already largely support on-premise configurations, so they may be the real winners in this battle. Yet bear in mind that looming behind the marketing automation vendors are the enterprise CRM vendors, who also offer largely on-premise installations. They may eventually gobble up the marketing automation business and the Web analytics data along with it. In that case, Web analytics vendors who hope to become rich stewards of centralized customer databases will be very disappointed.

Customer-Centricity Is Obsolete

I also think there may be one still deeper trend at play here, although this is more speculative. Let’s call it a shift from customer-centric to community-centric marketing. Since customer centricity has been the ultimate goal of marketers, or at least marketing gurus, for several decades, I expect some skepticism.

But think of it this way: marketing has always been about deploying and propagating messages to consumers. In recent years, we’ve striven and become technically more able to target those messages directly at individuals. Yet messages were never really limited to one person. Even if they were delivered privately, they could be shared directly through conversation, physical and electronic pass-along, and indirectly as consumers discussed their experiences with the company in general. Thus, there has always been a community component to marketing campaigns. In cases such as word of mouth programs, this was even the primary objective.

Today, of course, that sort of sharing has become increasingly important for every marketing project. Thus marketers have more need to track the secondary impact of their messages on the larger community. Happily, they also have more technology to do the tracking.

Here’s what’s interesting, though. Marketers will never be able to trace the exact path of each message from one person to another. And even if the data were available, there were no privacy constraints and they could handle the volume, marketers would still face the insurmountable challenge of that multiple messages influence final behavior. That is, they could never meaningfully say that one particular message was the single reason a customer did something. All they can ever do is to look at the many different messages a customer probably received and compare these with actual behavior. If the customer did what you wanted, the messages somehow worked.

If this sounds familiar, it should: it’s the classic problem faced by brand marketers in measuring the value of their investments. Their solution has always been to measure intermediate variables such as consumer attitudes, and to measure these through samples rather than by polling everyone in the market.

This brings us full circle to the panel-based attitudinal research at the core of the Omniture/comScore and Nielsen/Facebook deals. Once you recognize that what’s most important is the broad community impact of your marketing efforts, you fall back on those types of measures rather than attempting the impossible, and impossibly expensive, task of tracing the exact path followed by each individual. In other words, what we’re seeing here is not some Mad Men-style reversion to obsolete brand marketing behaviors, but a recognition that modern marketing is community-driven, so its measurements must be as well.

Now, if I can just find a reason to bring back the three-martini lunch….

1 comment:

Josh said...

The only issue with these sorts of measurements is the difficulty connecting behavior online (viewing and clicking) with making purchases. You can (sometimes) do that with online retail, especially if the advertisement directs the consumer to a retailer's site. But what about an ad for a brand that's sold through multiple retailers (e.g., Canon cameras). And, for product advertisement and promotion, how do you connect back to bricks-and-mortar behavior?