Measure It

A web site is a fluid publishing environment. Unlike producing a TV commercial or creating a newspaper advertisement, a web site is designed to be changed and updated starting the minute it is launched.

For a lot of companies, this is one of the most perplexing and challenging aspects of operating a web site. How often do things need to be updated? What parts of the web site should be changed? Is the site accomplishing its goals? Are people using the site in the way it was intended?

Finding answers to these questions is critical to a successful online project, and analysis of web metrics is one of the key tools to assist in finding answers. Peter Drucker‘s phrase sums it up nicely “What gets measured gets managed”.

My career in broadcasting introduced me to metrics early on. Radio and TV stations sell ads based on audience size. They use independent measures exclusively as a means of setting their rates, and they spend a significant amount of money to acquire and analyze those numbers.

My first job was at a tiny radio station in Dauphin, Manitoba. They couldn’t afford to buy into the radio ratings system but the station manager, the late Hugh Dunlop, had his own way of measuring. When reporting on a traffic accident (a big story in a small prairie town), he’d always end his report saying the cars involved in the crash had been towed to so-and-so’s service station. Then Hugh would drive over to see how many people showed up to gawk at the wrecks.

Hardly scientific, but better than no measurement at all. I call this “Dunloping” it.

Contests and write-in campaigns are other ways of “Dunloping” the numbers – the numbers are highly subjective but they’re better than nothing.

Fortunately, web sites generate a plethora of useful statistics. Yet it’s surprising how often we encounter companies that are making minimal use of their web measures, and are in fact more often “Dunloping” it than using more reliable information available to them. So, one of my first recommendations is that they embrace the mantra: If You Can’t Measure It – Don’t Do It.

In almost all cases, embracing this notion is easy because the data is usually being gathered. A little analysis, even simple analysis, will go a long way to helping you make informed choices, leading to more successful online projects.

What Do the Numbers Mean?

Sometimes a client will say to us “We have x-thousand page views a month. Is that good?” Metrics have to be considered in context. Because web technology provides us with a multitude of different measurement tools, answers to those key questions hardly ever come from one set of measures.

The importance of various measures is directly related to a site’s goals. And a combination of measures provides a more complete picture than relying on just one set of numbers.
For a community site, the amount of time viewers spend on the site will be a key measure, as will the number of user-generated posts. For a site that depends on banner ad sales, page views will be far more important.

The important thing is to start with a few key measures, analyzing them on a regular basis. Measurement analysis can get quite esoteric, and if you have the resources to do so, by all means delve deep. For the vast majority of small to medium businesses, a few key measures will provide important data to help determine the direction of the web site.

If you can’t afford analytic software, get the data, put it into Excel and make a few key charts and graphs. Do it monthly, and use the same format so you can compare results.

I like to group 2 or 3 measures together into what I refer to as ‘key indicators’. Take for example, an e-mail newsletter. Grouping list size, open rate, and click through rate together provides a significant snapshot of the campaign’s strength.

While growing the size of an email list is obviously desirable, a small list that has a high open rate (people actually read the newsletter after it has been sent) and a high click through rate (people who click on links in the newsletter) may actually serve the goals better than a larger list with a low click-through rate. In the example below, key indicators are graphed together to provide a quick view of the health of the list.

A set of key website indicators might include page views, bandwidth, and files served. This provides a snapshot of how much people are actually using the web site.

On the other hand, trying to determine which section of a web site to focus more attention on requires analysis of a different data set.

The goal here is to get away from decisions based on anecdotal or emotional data. You have a myriad choices to make as an online content creator, so use the numbers as a means of guiding those choices.

Trending is another important data point. Not all new projects show instant success, so looking at changes over time is important. Analysis helps you make decisions, assess your successes and fix mistakes.

Just as in TV, radio and print, measuring the success of your online efforts is key to your ongoing strategy. The web gives us an abundant set of detailed data, and the companies who are most successful online are aggressive in their use of that data. They’re also strict with themselves, building on the things that people actually view online, and ditching the things that aren’t generating any good usage stats. To be successful online you have to measure your data, and also be prepared to LEARN from that data. Be rigorous, measure what you’re doing, and you’ll be able to build a meaningful project for your online audience

In Summary

  • If you have a web site, you have measurable results.
  • Devise a way of reporting the data and look at it regularly.
  • If your data isn’t pretty, make simple graphs and charts.
  • You don’t need a lot of data, but you do need to use what you have.
  • If you have to, Dunlop It.
  • Ask ‘why is this happening’. Look for linkages in the data.
  • Add some qualitative data when you can

Go Wireless Until the Juice Runs out

Take a glimpse into the near future, and you’ll see plenty of options for wireless connectivity between devices.

At the Consumer Electronic Show this year Sony was showing off a system to move large files, say from a video camera, to a computer or TV. Their system, called Transfer Jet only works when the devices are in close proximity to each other, but it’ll be a great feature, and moves data faster then a traditional USB cable.

Bluetooth, the short-range wireless technology that’s used in those Star Trek like cell phone headsets is becoming quite common – and celebrates its 10th year this year.

Connecting to the internet over a wireless hub has become commonplace now, and there are a number of city wide projects that will blanket an entire population inside a wireless mesh, meaning you can crack open your laptop and check mail almost anywhere.

But there’s a catch, and a big one.

Power. Lots and lots of power. At most blogging conferences now, the biggest tech issue is how many places can people plug-in to recharge their laptops, cell phones, iPods and digital cameras.

Network operation centres, those big data hubs where network servers sit on high speed fibre optic connections to the internet face huge power challenges. Recent outages among major players in San Francisco recently were due to power problems, nothing to do with network connectivity. A peak under your own desk will show you why – with each specialized device comes a power requirement of some kind – either a battery charger or an AC adapter to power the unit. I actually have far fewer cables connecting my computer equipment now, but more AC power cables.

Are things going to get better any time soon. Probably not. There are some promising technologies out there that might lengthen the battery life in your cell phone or laptop, but almost all of them lead to a power plug for charging.

So, while the idea of a wireless mesh covering the city, maybe even the globe is exciting, a bigger breakthrough be solving boring old AC electricity needs.

When Copies Are Free

Publishers and distributors are facing the ultimate challenge to re-invent themselves as consumers continue to adopt new technologies at a rapid pace.

We’ve watched record labels struggle, and fail, in attempts at finding ways of stopping wide scale copying and distribution of music. For years they’ve tried everything from copy protection to lawsuits, as a means of keeping people from making digital copies.

Nothing they’ve done has worked.

Yet, in a relatively short period of time, Apple created an enormously successful online music distribution model. Think about it. Where every single record label failed, Apple succeeded.

One of reasons they did was because they understand the digital economy.

In a recent article, writer Kevin Kelly identifies one of the key challenges of the digital economy.

When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied. – Kevin Kelly

Kelly then goes on to suggest eight categories of value that you buy when you are paying for something that could be free…

“Eight uncopyable values. I call them “generatives.” A generative value is a quality or attribute that must be generated, grown, cultivated, nurtured. A generative thing can not be copied, cloned, faked, replicated, counterfeited, or reproduced. It is generated uniquely, in place, over time. In the digital arena, generative qualities add value to free copies, and therefore are something that can be sold.”

His article should be a must-read for every executive at every ‘traditional’ media organization in the world. Whether you agree on Kelly’s eight categories or not, you can’t argue with him when he says,

“once anything that can be copied is brought into contact with internet, it will be copied, and those copies never leave. Even a dog knows you can’t erase something once it’s flowed on the internet.”

This week, we see two examples of traditional publishers struggling to find their route through the challenges of the digital economy.

Random House has decided to try to sell something that can be copied. They’ve announced that they will be experimenting with selling books chapter by chapter online.

Meanwhile, Harper Collins is taking a different approach. They’ll be posting books free on the web

“The idea is to give readers the opportunity to sample the books online in the same way that prospective buyers can flip through books in a bookstore. “It’s like taking the shrink wrap off a book,” said Jane Friedman, chief executive of HarperCollins Publishers Worldwide. “The best way to sell books is to have the consumer be able to read some of that content.”

Of the two approached, the Harper Collins strategy makes more sense. In their case, the ‘generatives’ at play include patronage, accessibility, authenticity and findability.

This last generative may be one of the most important for book and magazine publishers.

Take the case of writer Charles Sheehan-Miles.

He’s giving away electronic versions of his book Republic. In fact, he’s encouraging you to make a copy, send it to your friends, do anything you want with it, except sell it. Sure, but who’s Charles Sheehan-Miles anyway ? Which is his point exactly…

The biggest challenge most authors face isn’t online piracy. It’s not people out there diabolically copying their works and distributing them for free. In fact most authors (including yours truly) suffer from a different problem entirely — no one has ever heard of them. After all, literally hundreds of thousands of new titles come out every year, and only a few hundred writers in the entire United States (if that many) actually live off their books full time. So, by giving away the book, I hope more people actually read it.

The book, the one you can buy, is currently #2 on the Sci-Fi/Alt-History list.

And yet, for content distributors, the most frightening thing in the world is to adopt new channels, even as they watch the old ones erode. Many of the alternatives are unproven. Worse, some haven’t yet been invented.

Those who live and breath the digital economy know that success lies in pushing through the uncertainty. After all, the risks of the unknown are overwhelmed by the certainty “when copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied”.