Blinded by the Light

In this age of data everywhere, of analytics on every lip, of promises of insights on every tweet and blog post, there is no denying that Marketing analytics very heavily relies on technology. Maybe even too much, one could even say. Heck, it is after all a market, a very big one, supported by huge amounts of capital to convince today’s marketer that his/her salvation depends on getting the latest more powerful application. But what if the tools you use somehow blinded you?

Technology, let’s call it tools for the purpose of this article, is obviously a very important component of the whole insight generation process. Those tools are getting more and more powerful and cheaper as well. This means that more companies, regardless of size, have access to the kind of analytical capabilities that were only available to big, rich companies in the past. This is certainly a good thing. However, I fear that we often find ourselves in some sort of cult of tools, presuming that with the best one (will it ever exist?), we can find answers to everything.

This reminds me of my teenage years. I was a race cyclist then, riding a very ordinary 10-speed bike (yes, 10, that was circa 1977). I was not a very good cyclist, finishing often last, when I did finish. I was convinced that if I had a much better bicycle, a true racing one, I would be much better. One summer, I got it. Oh, it wasn’t the very top of the line (we were all dreaming of owning a custom-made Marinoni), but it was after all a Gitane, a European machine. Well, guess what? I still finished last. It wasn’t the bike; it was what was going on between my ears.

You will not get a bright answer from asking a dumb question; regardless of how “clever” your tool is.

In my particular field, Web Analytics (OK, “Digital Analytics”) I have grown uncomfortable in the past year with this obsession of tools, more particularly with the almost cult-like following of Google Analytics.

First, let me say that GA is a great product. I use it everyday (don’t want to get flamed as usual). It seems to me, unfortunately, that there is a new generation of web analysts who have known only that platform. I don’t want to discuss why (fascination for everyting Google besides product quality? Maybe, I don’t know). Regularly talking with those young professionals, I noticed that all they know is what one finds in GA. What is possible is what’s possible with the product. They often don’t question it, are really unaware of its weaknesses (*all* tools have some), to the point that to many, Google Analytics is slowly becoming the generic term for web analytics. A real semantic peril!

Let me say that the technical aspects of what I do tend to bore me. However, I did go through complex implementations, immersed in the arcane configuration complexities the “paid products” required. It was a very good school indeed. It showed me the differences between products, sure, but it especially made me understand the data, what those products did to it, how they got to the results they showed, what were the consequences of having to choose the IP address versus the login value to sessionize visits, for example. I am not even sure GA-centric analysts understand anything about sessionization anymore…

Is it a case of generation gap, then? Maybe. Why would we bother nowadays with the intricacies of data structure and processes when a great product takes care of it? Well, you know, I believe it is still very important to get exposed to other approaches, other methodologies, other solutions to the same problems in order to grow one’s critical mind, one’s ability to spot what doesn’t work, what doesn’t make sense, in a way, take the control back from the tools.

If you allow me to use a metaphor, I would compare analytical tools (all measurement tools for that matter) to a powerful flashlight; the surface touched by its beam shines a brigh light, while a few feet away it is pitch dark.

All tools are designed by people who made the choices of certain capabilities, intentionally supporting certain views of what is important while rejecting others. This is normal, since a tool can’t be everything for everyone.

To my young colleagues: all the genius in the world is not concentrated only in Mountain View, CA. It can be found all over the world as well.

It can be found in you.