Aaron Gray // Greater Returns


Musings on Web Analytics, product strategy + other stuff.

Maybe You Need a Web Analytics Turnaround, Not a New Vendor

The Problem

Many companies have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in web analytics tools and talent, and still find themselves frustrated by a lack of demonstrable value — a lack of real, calculable return on that investment.

It’s not a good situation to be in.  It’s bad personally for the managers and executives who have overseen the investment.  It’s bad for the vendors who take the blame for providing no value.  And it’s bad for the business which, unless corrective action is taken, will continue to throw good money after bad.

What to Do?

Typically, the response to this situation is to blame the vendor and put out an RFP.  It’s a natural response.  But is it the right response?  Most of the time, it isn’t.  Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: People, Process, Tools, Web Analytics

Burby on Becoming an Analyst

Jason Burby, ClickZ columnist, has written what could be considered a follow-up to my 3 part series on hiring an analyst. Where I focused on the analytics hiring manager, Burby’s column offers a few tips for the individual contributor on how to become an analyst. His observations about backgrounds that lead to a good analyst jibe nicely with mine.

I wonder if he’s been reading my blog? 😉

Filed under: People, Web Analytics

How to Hire a Web Analyst – Part 3: Backgrounds

In this third -and last- post in this series, I look at the work and education backgrounds that I have found lead to a successful web analyst. My previous two posts looked and key skills and mindsets, as well as personalities you’re likely to come across in an analyst.

Work Experience

So, what have these people been doing if they’re not already web analysts? As noted previously, any job that requires crating a simple, digestible story from disparate, complex sources of information or data is good preparation for a web analyst career. I have found that individuals with experience in crafting or analyzing online user experiences bring powerful insight to the role. At the end of the day, the core function of the web analyst is to synthesize reams of complex data into succinct ideas and clearly actionable guidance to the business. Analysts with a background in usercenteredd design or usability bring a keen understanding of the user experience issues that underlie the data, and as such are rich sources of insight into how the issues uncovered in the data can be fixed.

The good analysts I have come across have work experience in the following roles:

  • Marketing Analyst
  • Database Marketing
  • Direct Response Marketing
  • User Experience Designer / Architect
  • Information Architect
  • Usability Specialist
  • Web Producer

Lastly, look for people who you think would also be good marketeers. Not marketers, but marketeers — candidates who truly empathize with the people in the market, and are interested in how to win their loyalty.


In my experience, it’s not so much important what the education of the analyst is, but rather that they are educated. I’m a firm believer that a baccalaureate is required for an analyst, or almost any professional careePossessionsion of a degree illustrates a level of commitment and discipline that is required for success in any career. More than that, though, I’ve never come across a good writer without a bachelor’s degree. College, it turns out, is good at developing core skills even when you end up working in areas seemingly unrelated to your studies. Of course, there are lots of baccalaureates who can’t write, so don’t equate the degree with writing skill.

That said, I have had particularly good experiences with analysts who have degrees in psychology or sociology. People who have studied people tend to have empathy for them, and as such make good web analysts. Other educational backgrounds I’ve come across in successful analysts include:

  • Business
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Liberal Arts
  • Math / Statistics

Series Conclusion

You’ll note a conspicuous absence of statistics as a skill set in what I’ve presented here. I personally believe that statistics is not required prior to becoming a web analyst. What is required is an ability to manipulate numbers and data to uncover the story and communicate it. But I believe it is more important that the analyst have an intuitive understanding of the people behind the data, because a single data set can tell many stories, not all of them valid. Uncovering the right story means having empathy, which allows you to fill in what the data can’t tell you — why people are behaving as they are. If you hire for the right mindset, any missing technical skills — basic statistics, Excel, data mining, web analytics tools — can be trained.

Of course it helps if the person doing the hiring is a skilled analyst who can mentor the up-and-comers. If the person doing the hiring is not a skilled analyst, consider sending the up-and-comers through the University of British Columbia’s certificate program.

I hope this series has helped you think a little bit differently about how to hire a web analyst. If you’ve been looking for analysts, you know that they’re hard to find. In the case of web analytics, it’s a luxury when you can hire someone who has the experience you’re looking for. In times like these, when the demand is high, and the supply short, you have to be willing to look at ways to groom smart people into the role.

If you’ve faced this challenge, let me know how you approached it, and what the outcomes have been. I’m eager to hear from you.

Filed under: People, Web Analytics

How to Hire a Web Analyst – Part 2: Personality

In my previous post, I outlined what I have found to be the right mind set, and the right core skill set to look for in a web analyst, especially when you’re looking to hire someone whom you plan to groom into the role.

Today’s topic is personality. I’ve observed three personalities in the quality analysts I’ve known:

  1. The Critic
  2. The Explorer
  3. The Expert

In reality, pieces of each personality are in everyone I’ve ever hired or recommended for hire as an analyst, and each is a critical component of a successful individual. I’ve found that, in a given individual, one personality tends to dominate.

The Critic

The Critic personality is someone who is generally driven to question what is presented as “truth”, “fact”, or “good”. They find reward in uncovering “things that aren’t right”, creating an understanding of what they’ve uncovered, and receiving recognition that they’ve uncovered something valuable. Of course, there is a pitfall to this personality. As with all strengths, this personality taken too far can become a weakness. You don’t really want your analysts to go to your marketers and tell them point-blank that their work is awful. Your management challenge with this personality will be to teach them to soften the message to the business; to teach them that it’s just as important to show people what’s working as it s to show them what isn’t working.

The good news is that I’ve found that this personality is generally well educated, well spoken, and able to distill complex ideas into simple truths, as that is the nature of the Critic. They also tend to be good writers and communicators.

The Explorer

The Explorer personality is curious and driven to understand, but doesn’t have the potentially negative “critical” outlook of the Critic personality. They find reward simply from the process of exploring the depths of possibility in the data, and also from “driving good results” for the business. This personality will tend get frustrated if the business doesn’t know how to put him or her to good use, but is an extremely valuable contributor when they are used appropriately. As with all personalities, there is a pitfall. The urge to explore has to be put aside at some point in order to finish the analysis, create the story, and drive the actions necessary to create positive impact on the business. Your management challenge with this personality will be to let them explore to the extent required for the business, and to help them develop the discipline required to have an end in sight and work toward that end.

This personality doesn’t have the strong correlation to the simplifying mind set that I’ve found in the Critic. You’ll need to watch for that.

The Expert

The Expert personality seeks to be seen as an expert in all that they chose to take on. They receive reward from recognition of their expertise in any number of subjects. This personality makes an excellent consultant, and you’ll often find them in a consulting role. This is a confident personality, able to gain trust from their audience even when they don’t have all the answers. It’s a good personality to have around. Don’t confuse this personality with the confident huckster. You still need to watch for the core mind sets (analytical, simplifying) and the core skills of communicating and writing succinctly. You’re looking for someone who truly is and seeks to be expert in what they do, not just confident.

I’ve seen this personality in a wide range of education levels and with varying degrees of communication skill. Look for someone with excellent person to person communication ability, with reasonable writing ability. You may need to coach on the softer business skills such as protocol.


In the next and final post in this series, How to Hire a Web Analyst, I’ll look at some of the work experiences and educational backgrounds that I’ve seen in top notch analysts. Here’s a teaser for you… Statistics isn’t on my list.

Filed under: People, Web Analytics

How to Hire a Web Analyst – Part 1: Mindset and Key Skills

Hiring a web analytics expert – a web analyst – can be quite a difficult task, especially if you’re just starting the process of building the web analytics function at your company. Experienced analysts are in high demand, and are demanding high salaries as a result. By the same token, hiring inexperienced analysts, or even hiring people with no analytics experience at all, can be a risky bet.

What’s the right way to solve this puzzle? Over the next week or so, starting with this post, I’ll be posting a series on this very topic – how to build out the analytics function without hiring only highly experienced web analysts.

Recognizing a Good Web Analyst

Who will make a good web analyst is more a question of mindset and personality than it is of rote skills or past experience. Of course, hard skills and past experience make a difference, but you’ll quickly find that experienced web analysts are in high demand, and are demanding increasingly higher salaries. As a result, the most efficient way to build your organization is to hire one solid analyst, if you can find one, then focus on building a team of people who, based on mindset, personality, and key non-analyst skills, can be quickly groomed to be solid web analysts. To do this, you have to look at candidates not for “what they’ve accomplished” but for “what they’re capable of.”

Mindset and Key Skills

A good analyst has an analytical, problem-solving mindset. They constantly seek to understand why things are the way they are, how seemingly unrelated things are connected, and to be able to explain that all to others. They think systemically, meaning that they have a fundamental belief that all things are connected (i.e. “if I push here, something will fall out over there”). A good analyst also has a simplifying mindset. They look for ways to distill complex ideas into simple, fundamental concepts that are understandable by everyone. This latter ability is crucial – in order to drive action from data, the data has to be turned into a story that is consumable by marketers and business people, and from which actions or “next steps” can be derived. The last thing you want is an analyst that simply overloads your marketers and managers with data.

The only hard skill I’ve been able to identify that has a connection to the mindset described above is writing. An individual who can clearly explain complex ideas in writing is demonstrating the ability to analyze and simplify. An individual who cannot write succinctly cannot be a good analyst. (They may actually understand what’s happing in the data, but if they can’t communicate it, what good does that do you?)


In my next post, I’ll cover the three main personalities I’ve observed that make quality web analysts: The Critic, The Explorer, and The Expert.

Filed under: People, Web Analytics, ,

What are we?

What are we… Web Analysts? Customer Behavior Analysts? Site Optimizers? Design Analysts? Web Analytics Gurus? [fill in the blank] Experts? Online Business Analysts? If you take into account where we come from, how we got to be Web Analysts (or whatever), you could add Usability Engineers, Interaction Designers, Information Architects, User Experience Analysts & Designers, Interface Designers, and Direct Marketers to the list. We’re quite a varied bunch.

I’m not sure what the best title for us is, and I’m not sure we know enough about what we do and where we’re going to have the right title just yet. I suspect there may be some specialization in the field required before the titles start to settle in. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how the field will specialize (or is specializing already).

Whatever you call us or what we do, it appears that, according to Jason Burby, we have very satisfying jobs. I would have to concur.

Filed under: People, Web Analytics