What data should you look at to decide marketing strategy? How do you use that data with a shoestring budget during leaner times? In this episode, Katie and Chris walk through common Google Analytics metrics that lend themselves well to marketing strategy decisions, and a KPI decision framework.
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What follows is an AI-generated transcript. The transcript may contain errors and is not a substitute for listening to the episode.
hristopher Penn: This is In-Ear Insights, the Trust Insights podcast.
AI Academy for Marketers is an online education platform designed to help marketers like you understand pilot and scale artificial intelligence. The AI Academy features deep dive certification courses of three to five hours, along with dozens of short courses 30 to 60 minutes each, taught by leading AI and marketing experts. Join Katie Robbert, CEO of TrustInsights.ai, and me, Christopher Penn, Chief Data scientist at Trust Insights for three of our courses in the academy, five use-cases of AI for content marketing intelligence, intelligent attribution modeling for marketing, and detecting and mitigating bias in marketing AI. The Academy is designed for manager level and above marketers and largely caters to non-technical audiences, meaning you don’t need a programming background or background in data science to understand and apply what you learn. One registration gives you unlimited access to all the courses, an invitation to a members-only slack instance, and access to new courses every quarter. Join now and save $100 off registration when you go to TrustInsights.ai/AIAcademy and use registration code Penn 100 today. That’s TrustInsights.ai/AIAcademy and use registration code Penn 100.
Today, in this week’s In-Ear Insights, we’re talking strategy data and what to do when you don’t have, oh, I don’t know, a million dollars worth of talent and hardware and software and code and all that stuff. So, Katie, what’s going on? What is the strategy on a shoestring?
Katie Robbert: Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about the current situation that a lot of us find ourselves in where businesses have slowed down. Maybe it’s because it’s seasonal, maybe because there are other things going on in the economy. But that doesn’t mean that businesses don’t still need to move forward and figure out their next moves. A lot of questions that we’ve been seeing go back to: How do I know what to do when the world opens up? Because, as we’re recording this, we’re still in the middle of a global pandemic. So how do we know what our next moves are?
It really started to make me think of the resources people already have or should already have that will help them reset their strategy without having to spend a million dollars. And my go-to, and I think Chris, your go-to will always start with the data that you do have. For us, that’s primarily Google Analytics data. With Google Analytics, you can have a free account tied to your website. It captures a lot of information about your prospects and your customers that can help you understand what you should do next. And Google Analytics doesn’t cost you anything other than your time.
CP: True. There is the minor challenge, though, that it’s kind of like a frying pan, right? If you don’t know how to cook and you don’t know what you’re doing with it, it has limited utility. It’s good, and if someone gave me a nice cast iron pan for free, I would not say no. But if I didn’t know how to cook, I might duct tape it to the front of the car as a very small piece of armor, as opposed to using it for its intended purpose. So when something goes wrong, particularly with Google Analytics, I feel like there’s a lot of opportunities for people to misinterpret the data.
When you’re thinking about marketing on a shoestring, we like to say, “If you have time but no money, you have to learn it. If you have money but no time, you have to buy it.” What’s the balance? When you look at the average business, acknowledging the fact that we are biased towards a heavier use of data than most, where’s the balance?
KR: Well, if you’re talking about balance, we started this conversation by saying that things have slowed down, which then makes the assumption that you have time. Google Analytics along with a lot of other software systems have a lot of really good free training resources. There’s the Google Analytics Academy, for example. So if you’re finding yourself with time, this is a great opportunity to learn how to use Google Analytics properly, how to set up your accounts properly, how to set up Tag Manager properly. This way, when you’re collecting data that kind of makes you scratch your head you have a starting place to say, “Okay, that doesn’t look right. Let me try to troubleshoot it myself because I’ve done a lot of this training on my own.” That said, there are a lot of communities where if you just drop in a question, somebody is more than willing to talk at you for hours on end about everything that you’re doing wrong, but within that, you may get some useful information. Not that I’ve had that experience myself.
CP: Well, what I would say in terms of communities is, do you want to join analytics? You can go to TrustInsights.ai/analyticsformarketers, and join our free slack community where, if you’d like, we will talk to you for hours. (Laughs).
KR: That’s true. But the question about balance is that you should, as a company, have some data that tells you something about the health of your website, your digital properties, assuming you have digital properties. If you don’t, then you probably have financial data, customer data, transactional data, you should have some of that in someplace. I think the starting point is trying to figure out what you do have.
CP: I’m actually going to say that’s not the best starting point. The best starting point is to have a plan and a strategy that looks at the goal you’re trying to achieve. For example, if you run a roadside coffee shop stand in the middle of nowhere and all the other people who come in are the locals who live in the town where there’s no internet access, you don’t really need Google Analytics. You just need to be putting out flyers on trees to remind people you exist. But more importantly—and I think this is important because it goes along with what you said—, if you make a list of those metrics from the top of the funnel to the bottom of the funnel, operations wise, ask yourself at each stage, “Can I measure this in Google Analytics? Can I measure close sales? Can I measure shopping carts filled?” You have to work until you get to a point where you say yes. For us, we’re a B2B business. We can’t measure a sale in Google Analytics of our consulting services, but we can actually measure a lead that’s been generated from someone downloading a white paper. So for us, we have to figure out the things we can measure. And then what are the things that are beyond that measurement for which we have to do inference. If you don’t have that map, you run the risk of trying to measure things you can’t measure. We’ve had a lot of conversations with prospective customers who say, “How do I measure this?” Well, you can’t. Or you measure too much of the wrong stuff and you may say, “Here’s my dashboard with 500 widgets and dials,” while your stakeholders go, “I don’t see why this is important.”
KR: So Chris, from your perspective, how do you solve that problem?
CP: It really is like that sheet of paper where you start mapping from the top of the funnel to the bottom of the funnel: Here’s the data I have, or like you said, here’s what we have, here’s what we know. Can I measure this in Google Analytics? If this is the tool that you’re going to use.
To your point about learning, the things you can measure, you say yes, the things you can’t measure, you say no. But there’s a good chance for many marketers where there will be a bunch of “I don’t know if I can.” And I think that’s the best place to start your learning journey from a professional development perspective. There’s gonna be a whole bunch of I don’t know’s. Fill in those I don’t knows. Go learn that specific thing. Go to Stack Overflow, go to Google Analytics forums, go to Analytics for Markers, and ask, “Is this something that you could measure in Google Analytics?” And if it is great, if it’s not, how could I start to pick away at that?
KR: So to bring it back to the original topic of strategy on a shoestring. One of the reasons why we brought this up was because of the caveats and assumptions that Google Analytics is set up correctly, that you know how to use it, so on and so forth. Let’s pretend for a second that you’re using a Google Analytics account that is collecting correct data and it’s set up correctly. There are a lot of reports that you can pull out of Google Analytics and a lot of reports you can generate using Google Analytics data that will help you understand where to go next. Taking a look at your benchmarking, for example, will help compare you to other similar kinds of companies, similar kinds of websites, and it will help you understand how you’re doing with each of your individual digital channels. Here’s what you need to do next, here’s where you should spend a little bit more money to compete. Here’s where you should pay a little bit more attention to make sure that you’re competitive. That’s one of the reports that I think people who have enough data—a year’s worth of data at least—should start with just to see how they stack up.
What are some of your favorite reports, Chris?
CP: Well, I don’t look at a whole lot in Google Analytics anymore. I spend a lot of time in Google Data Studio. Because that’s very often where we’re trying to present information to stakeholders that deliver usable insights they can look at. In terms of stuff that’s built into Google Analytics, there are some things you can’t get in other applications. Benchmarking is definitely one of them. So are the demographics and interests being able to see who is our audience? What other attributes might they be interested in in order to use that to align topically with what it is republishing? There’s a whole bunch of people who are on our blog, for example, that are interested in movies and TV. Maybe I should be using fewer cooking knowledge analogies and more movie analogies if that’s something that’s of interest to the audience.
One that I think is super underrated and underused is the cohort analysis report. This looks at a group of data-like users, biometric-like retention, meaning they come back to your website or conversions, and shows it to you over days, weeks, months, etc. And I find this import so underused because people don’t know how to interpret it, because it really doesn’t have the best UI. But if you know how to interpret it, it tells you how much of your audience you’re just not getting back. That tells you a lot in particular about your content marketing, how compelling your website is, if your website has a 99% loss rate, meaning that 1% of visitors come back week after week. That kind of indicates you’re not doing a really good job of bringing people back to where you want them to be. And that, to me, is a big red flag that a lot of your marketing efforts may be a waste of money. If you’re spending thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours on your blog and infographics, and 99% of your audience never comes back, I don’t know if that’s something you want to be spending a whole lot of time on then.
KR: I agree with that. And let me sort of rephrase the question that I asked you because you said you don’t spend a lot of time in Google Analytics, you spend it in Data Studio. I guess my question was more about what data from Google Analytics do you find to be the most useful and whether you look at it directly in Google Analytics, or you pull it into a visualization tool, such as Google Data Studio, which is your own personal choice. Obviously, we recommend Data Studio since you can do a little bit more data blending and visualization.
One of the things that I think is very telling is the source medium report. I find that knowing which channels are working for you is really important. But specifically, which source and which medium is helpful. So let’s say your social channel is really hot. It’s doing all the converting for you. But what if you’re running six different kinds of social? You don’t know which platform is actually doing the hard work. So I find that the source medium report is a really telling report because then you may see Twitter’s doing all of the work, Facebook’s doing nothing. And Instagram every once in a while pops up its head, but you’re putting all of your money into Instagram. So what’s going on?
CP: I completely agree. And you can slice that into a couple of different places. You can do it for traffic acquisition, you can do it for goal conversions. And my personal favorite use of that information is doing a customer journey mapping with it, which is not something you can do in Google Analytics, you have to have code that pulls the data out of the API, and then mixes and matches it. But you’re right, because the other problem that you’ll run into if your analytics is not configured properly, is you’ll get missed attribution. So an awful lot of the time you will see for example in Google Analytics, mail.google.com. Because it’s from a website, it is treated as referral traffic. Now, I would say it’s patently obvious. That’s an email application. Same for mail.yahoo.com.
When you use source medium, you can see that and you can recode it manually if you need to when you’re pulling data out for offline analysis, but within the application itself, unless you fix that as part of the default channels, you may be drawing incorrect conclusions. We ran into that with a customer of ours where they were pulling in hundreds of thousands of visits that were all being coded as referral traffic. But when we dug up, that’s all outlook.com, aol.com, and stuff, and it was just getting mischaracterized until we fixed it. And they said, “Oh, actually, email is the most important channel.” Yeah, it is, but your analytics was misleading you.
KR: I agree. And I think that, again, sort of going into this conversation with the assumption that things are set up correctly and it’s collecting data correctly. When we think about being in the middle of a slowdown or the middle of a pandemic, how do I know what to do next when all I have in front of me is my Google Analytics data? I think starting with some benchmarking, perhaps some of the built-in attribution tools, if that’s all you have access to or if you don’t have access to other code that can do a Markov chain model or something like that.
I think one of the mistakes that a lot of users make is they only look at those high-level stats like number of visits to the website or bounce rate. What is that really telling you? I can say, “Well, I had more visits this month than last month.” But I don’t know why. I don’t know what to do about that. I don’t know, just looking at that metric, what I did differently. So you can start to dig into those metrics within your Google Analytics account to figure out what was different: “Did I put more money into paid search and back off email?” Or, you know, vice versa? There’s a lot you can do to figure out your next moves in Google Analytics.
Chris, what are some of the mistakes you see people making when they’re just trying to figure out what to do next with their data?
CP: You hit on a really important point. It’s something that we talk about a lot with what we call the Three What’s framework, right? Any given data point has three what’s: What happened, which is the analysis. So what, which is your insights. And What next. And because people don’t operate with that general framework in mind, you get an awful lot of just what happened. Avinash Kaushik calls it data puking where people just puke data all over the place and it doesn’t mean anything. If I was running a business from scratch, I would take a look at each stage in my marketing operations funnel and find a trackable number, ideally in Google Analytics, for each major stage.
So, awareness: Maybe it’s new users to the website. Engagement: Returning users to the website. Action of some kind: subscriptions, the newsletter, or lead forms. Pick one number for each of these major stages, put it on a Google Data Studio dashboard. And then each week, or however often we need to, ask those three questions. Okay, new users to the website were up 15%. Is this important? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. We ran a big email campaign that week. Maybe that’s important. Hey, we got some new people we haven’t reached previously. Now what? What do we do with that information? To your point, if that was something under our control that was sustainable, great, let’s do more of that because that is an important number that we agreed upon. Let’s do more of that. If it’s not something we have control over, like getting mentioned in a Reddit thread that just took off. In terms of what next, can you retarget that audience to bring them back if they are, in fact, valuable? I would do this for each stage. And again, this is not something that requires extra software, you can literally map these things out on a sheet of paper and a crayon. I don’t recommend actually putting Google Analytics data in crayon, but map it out, and then put it in a Data Studio dashboard or something so that you can see those numbers, the change from period to period and be able to say, “That doesn’t look right. Why is that the case?”
When we do an event like we did last week on natural language processing, we got a whole bunch of new people in the audience. By the way, if you’re listening for the first time, welcome. ‘So what,’ we like new people, particularly if they’re interested in what we’re interested in. ‘Now what,’ we have to figure out what percentage of our content needs to still be about that topic that they originally were interested in us for. If we talk about natural language processing on a webinar and people sign up for our newsletter, and they never see it again, they’re going to feel like it’s kind of a bait and switch as opposed to now if there’s a big chunk of the audience that likes that, we gotta throw that in.
When we were at the MAR Tech conference, we started working in more marketing technology content, because we had a huge influx of audience for that. And so we have to make sure that that’s in the mix. So I would say in terms of what to do with this stuff, that’s what it comes down to. Figure out your KPIs, which remember the numbers you get bonuses for, and then figure out the So what and then Now what. But that requires a plan.
KR: It’s true, it does. But again, it doesn’t have to be overly complicated if you just start with something simple, like wanting to know which channels are driving traffic to your website. That’s a great place to start. Because if you don’t have a lot of money and you don’t have a big budget this year, you may want to figure out where you should be spending your money. So the question is, which channels are driving traffic? Then you can go into your Google Analytics data and start to figure out month over month, which channels are performing the best, so that when you’re resetting your strategy, you can start to figure out, “Okay, I should probably spend the little bit of budget that I do have on this and less on this.” And then you can measure it using your KPI map and you can put that data into Google Data Studio where it automatically refreshes. And that is a very simplistic way to start to reset. Reset your strategy moving forward when you don’t have a lot of resources, you don’t have a lot of budget, but you do have time.
CP: And like hiking, right? If you have a compass, you do not need a perfectly calibrated compass that is exact on magnetic north and also calibrates true north and tells you everything down to the millimeter. You just need to know the general direction that you’re going. So one of the things that we see people do wrong is, they get analysis paralysis. They try to get so much data and get it so refined instead of stopping at some point and making a decision.
I think that’s a good topic for another episode: The minimum amount of data you need to make a decision. But know that in Google Analytics, again with that big assumption that it’s all configured correctly, there is a point after which you’re doing too much analysis and not enough action. It’s an opportunity cost. If you’re spending 10 hours a week in Google Analytics that’s probably overkilling for a smaller organization.
So I think that’s a really good place to wrap up. To summarize, if you have time, but no money, invest in professional development. But before you do, map out what you can and can’t do, what you do and don’t know, and how well that maps your business outcomes. Then build your plan that will guide your training, that will guide what you put out in terms of the reporting you do, and most of all, what actions you’re going to take. Because analysis without action is just a distraction.
If you got any follow-up questions on this episode, please leave them over at TrustInsights.ai. You can find this episode and many others in the podcast and please feel free to join our free slack group Analytics for Marketers over TrustInsights.ai/analyticsformarketers. We’ll talk to you soon.
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