One of the most common business cliches is “think outside the box”. Executives who’ve run out of ideas often tell each other and their subordinates to think outside the box, but what exactly are we supposed to do?
What is The Box?
If we don’t know or don’t define what the box is, it’s awfully hard to know when you’re inside or outside of it. Sometimes, the box is the physical company building your desk is located in. Sometimes, it’s an industry or vertical. Sometimes, it’s a specific way of thinking. Whatever your box is, know where its boundaries are. When it comes to analytics, data, and marketing, more often than not, the box is a standard set of processes and platforms. Thus, thinking outside the box means either using our processes and platforms in different ways, or more commonly, removing data from those platforms to use in unconventional ways.
For example, in digital marketing, Google Analytics is rightfully the gold standard for measuring the impact of our work. It is a nearly-literal box; thinking outside the box means using tools, tactics, and techniques which take data out of the Google Analytics ecosystem and doing something else with it.
Let’s think about what kind of data Google Analytics provides. At its core, Google Analytics tells us who does what on our owned media properties, when and where, and how they got to us. If we distill down that sentence, we see five kinds of data:
- Who: the audience member
- What: the audience member’s on-site behavior
- Where: the content/locations on our site
- When: the days and times of our audience’s behaviors
- How: the different ways our audience found us
To think outside the box, we’d start thinking about the types of analysis we might want to do that Google Analytics simply isn’t built to perform based on the categories above. Google Analytics is superb about telling you what’s happening in the moment, and what’s happened historically, but it’s less good at sounding an alarm when sustained trends are occurring. So let’s tackle when, solving the problem of not being able to see sustained trends. If we want to solve this problem, we’ll need to think outside the Google Analytics box.
Thinking Outside the Box: Sustained Trends
What kinds of trends might we want to look for? What’s a sustained trend? We’re looking for signs of ill health, signs that our website’s growth is going the wrong direction. How might we do that? We could do simple averaging or sampling, charting a line that fits our most recent website traffic, but this sort of indicator isn’t very accurate. On any given day, there’s a lot of ups and downs that make trend spotting hard. We’ll step outside the thinking box of marketing analytics and look for another industry, another methodology that’s been proven, but not applied to marketing.
No industry has spent more time working on detecting and jumping on trends than the financial services market – especially stock trading. Stock traders want to know (or today, program their high-frequency trading software to know) the moment a stock is headed in a direction they don’t want it to go, and take action the moment they’re aware of it. What if we could transfer this idea to marketing?
Let’s pull in our Google Analytics data first:
We can broadly see what’s happening over time, but there’s still so many ups and downs that it’d be hard to notice a sustained trend in time for us to fix it. Suppose we were to apply a short-term moving average, say, on a 7-day window?
That simple moving average, representing by the green line above, smoothes out a lot of the volatility and gives us a better sense of how our site is doing. Seeing that short-term average take a downturn would be a good indicator we might have a problem with our site. But, what if there are confounding factors like a holiday that would throw off a short-term average. We could add a longer-term average – say, 28 days – to our chart:
Notice how the red line, the 28-day average, is lagging behind the green one. It takes longer for changes to show up in the red line than it does the green line because the rolling window is bigger. This helps smooth out things like holidays and short anomalies.
If you think about it, when your short-term and long-term averages are both on the decline, things are bad. If both averages are on the rise, things are good. Logically, then, because the long-term average trails behind the short-term, you could take the difference of the two to tell you when the winds were shifting. If the long-term was above the short-term, that means something happened recently that’s going to bring your traffic lower. Conversely, if the short-term was below the long-term but has since risen above it, that tells you things are starting to improve. Let’s chart that:
When the chart above, the signal, crosses zero going down, that means our short-term is below our long-term and we need to act immediately. When the line is above zero, that means things are going well and if it’s significantly above zero, maybe we should add some more budget or resources to whatever campaigns are happening, so that we reap the benefits of what’s obviously working.
In stock trading, this is an indicator called the moving average convergence divergence indicator, or MACD, and most statistical software that deals with stock data has it built-in. If we apply it to our web analytics, we create an early warning system that tells us when our website’s in trouble – and that will help us take rapid action to fix things before both averages fall.
Where Can You Think Outside the Box?
Every field that deals with analytics has its own proven best practices and techniques. Based on your background, your experience, and your network of friends, where could you look for inspiration and concepts you could bring into your marketing analytics? For example, the medical field is unmatched in its ability to detect changes in rigorous testing. It has to be; a mistake in your web analytics might mess up your marketing, but a mistake in medicine is literally life or death. What ideas can we borrow from medical testing analytics?
Think outside the box. Someone, somewhere in a different profession has already succeeded at solving a problem you’re struggling with now. Go get the answer and bring it into your marketing.
Christopher S. Penn
Co-Founder, Trust Insights
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