TakeFive with TweetReach – Evan LaPointe

Welcome to TakeFive with TweetReach, our ongoing interview series where we talk with notable members of the social media analytics community, pulling together insight, commentary and conversation around all things measurement, analytics, and improvement. This week we’re happy to welcome Evan LaPointe, Director of Client Performance at Search Discovery, creator of the popular web analytics blog Atlanta Analytics, and a recognized leader in the web analytics community.

TweetReach: Welcome Evan! Let’s start with talking about how you got started with web analytics. What got you interested in measurement?

Evan LaPointe: I got started with web analytics (before, it was just for my own businesses) in 2005. Before that, I was doing valuation work on stocks. It was good stuff to learn, but I really missed working on the web and wanted to do it full-time. Coming from an analyst role in the financial industry, an analyst role in this industry seemed like a good leaping-back-in point. And as for the second part of that question, nothing got me, nor currently has me interested in “measurement.” Measurement is just a means to an end, like measuring wood before you cut it to build a house. This industry is stuck on this concept of measurement, and that is something that needs to change soon if we want companies to understand the value we can create for a business. If they think we are just a bunch of guys with rulers, that isn’t a bright future. In the financial world, there is a huge distinguishing line between accountants (measurers) and analysts (decision makers). We need to cross this line pronto.

TweetReach: What metrics are most important for you and and/or your clients? What should we be measuring? John Lovett has written about the dangers of using the wrong metrics. Are there things we shouldn’t be measuring? Are there any “bad” metrics?

Evan LaPointe: John is right, there are grave dangers associated with using the wrong metrics, but I don’t agree with anyone who says that any metric is a bad metric. Data is data, and metrics are just a framework for data. More data will always give you more context and information, so there is no reason to ever consider data or metrics “bad.” Some metrics, however, require a lot of other data to give them context. Acting directly on these metrics (or any metric in a vacuum) is immensely stupid. Even holy grail metrics like conversion rate are immensely stupid to react to in a vacuum. And herein lies the problem between “measurement” and “analysis.” Measurement is something can can be done microcosmically: you can measure and report tiny little things that may or may not matter. Analysis, on the other hand, requires a networked understanding of the system. Without understanding how multiple things work together to produce outcomes, you aren’t doing analysis.

So as far as the types of things we do for our clients, we focus on two key areas (and the metrics reveal themselves in these efforts): revealing the influencers to cash flow, and creating dashboards that reveal where a business should spend its time. Revealing the influencers to cash flow is a very important focus, because we can’t always connect tactics directly to cash. But we can nearly always connect a tactic to something we know influences cash flow. For example, we know that a great social media presence has the potential to boost peoples’ opinion of the brand, understand the product or service more clearly, provide a channel for our brand to grow in terms of mindshare, give us valuable insight into where our product fails, and possibly drive sales directly. While most focus is on traffic and conversions driven by social media (and it’s critical to follow these), we have to also understand the positive qualitative aspects of running a business well. These are the things that have a long-term benefit, and distinguish brands like Zappos who have unprecedented relationships with their shoppers and the bank account to prove it. Over time, these qualitative aspects will reveal themselves quantitatively so we can better understand what incremental investment will get us. But to start, brands need to trust that there are immensely powerful and important qualitative factors they can control directly, but will only loosely be measured against financial outcomes.

On the dashboarding side, I don’t believe in dashboards for the sake of people “understanding everything that is happening.” People don’t come to work to understand what is happening. They come to work to make it better. Since this is the case, we need to provide them some way of knowing where to spend their time and energy. We’ve seen that one effective way to do this is build dashboards that are thin and wide, and have some intelligence built into them to draw focus to areas where the business needs extra attention. By using some basic models that are tailored to each business, we can reveal the “health” of various parts of the business (and their influence on other parts) so people can focus on what’s going to make a difference. And these dashboards do not offer endless drill-down capabilities: we want people going to the tools designed for this purpose (BI, web analytics, etc.) so they have everything they need: a dashboard could never give them a true analysis environment.

TweetReach: What are your recommendations for someone just getting started with social media analytics? What should they do first? What are some important considerations?

Evan LaPointe: First off, they need to talk to someone a whole hell of a lot smarter than me. Second, I would split the analysis into two pieces, in an ideal world. Piece one is finding as direct a connection to business outcomes as possible. How is the effort growing customer base, how is it impacting revenue in a cost-effective manner, how is it having equivalent outcomes to things you are paying for today? I saw a post where someone was criticizing social media and talking about how a Facebook campaign for Coke was stupid. What was stupefying was the article: did this writer have any clue what Coca Cola pays to reach 2MM people through any other channel? On top of that, there is no billboard that the instant someone decides they like it, it’s instantly shared with hundreds of their friends. And there is no television ad with polar bears that allows the viewer to provide instant feedback to the brand. Social media’s equivalent cost in other channels is outrageous, and many of its benefits are impossible to attain anywhere other than in social media. So, begin by measuring real return in terms of upside, and understanding the cost of equivalent reach elsewhere.

Piece two is that x factor that will be unique to your business. After you’ve defended your salary many times over in terms of real return or equivalent willingness to pay in other channels, you can begin dissecting the qualitative pieces and benefits of your social media campaign. This is where you take the comments, replies, feedback, sentiment, etc. and turn it into insight that can drive changes to product or new products, changes to how you market or interact with your customers, or any number of outcomes. Again, there are people who are a lot smarter than me when it comes to this stuff, but this is the rough outline of how I would approach it.

TweetReach: Let’s talk about consistency in measurement. There are a tremendous number of tools and approaches used to measure social media performance, which can produce results that are difficult to compare. Do you see the industry evolving towards a more standardized set of metrics or do you think we’ll continue to see a lot of variety and experimentation?

Evan LaPointe: In the social space, I think we will see a ton of variety and experimentation. We have no idea what to focus on to get a good picture of the true benefit of social media, and I, for one, think that’s very exciting. Social media can be used for some amazing and surprising business functions (like prioritizing IT’s efforts or helping product managers develop an offering based on very honest, real-world feedback). And beyond that, social media measurement means very different things to different businesses. Some have the opportunity to use it as a more direct channel (although that’s not always the best idea), while others use it as a support channel. Small businesses can measure based on interactions with individuals or small groups, while organizations interacting with millions of customers are forced to take a completely different approach. I really need to read John Lovett’s book; I’ve heard great things about it so far. He’s a far better person to ask this question to, but my gut says we are nowhere close to any sort of a set of standards or a common approach that can be shared among the majority of businesses.

TweetReach: Where do you go for analytics-related news and opinion – any particular sites, blogs or Twitter accounts that are of particular value?

Evan LaPointe: I keep in touch primarily via Twitter, and Google+ has become pretty good in this industry, too (although the ratio of self-promotion to sharing is a little high right now). I’m a big fan of Avinash Kaushik and his blog: he helps a lot of people get into this industry but stay centered, meaning he gives a lot of instruction on the “how,” but also frames it in terms of the “why.” Again, getting back to the obsession with metrics and measurement, he’s always been good about connecting it back to the financial outcomes and human side of working in a business. Eric Peterson is also one of those hall-of-famers who will make time to talk to people on twitter and share some of his wisdom (even though half of the time he speaks to me in parables). And you have this amazing community of people who are brilliant, many of who do not even know how brilliant they are. Everyone should get to know the folks from Keystone Solutions, energy-filled people like Michele Hinojosa, and people like Emer Kirrane who is like My Big Fat Greek Wedding Irish version: she thinks the root of everything is potatoes. I could go on and on, so just find me (@evanlapointe) on twitter if you’re looking for a longer list.

TweetReach: A great list. Thanks for your time and your thoughts, Evan!

As the Director of Client Performance at Search Discovery, Evan LaPointe is focused on using web analytics to help businesses take a holistic, data-driven approach to managing their portfolio of web strategies. Evan’s 15 years of hands-on experience developing, marketing, and improving web sites gives him the unique ability to approach web sites from a number of perspectives and work through any competing priorities to offer users the best experience possible, and businesses the best return possible. Evan is an active member of the web analytics community and a member and speaker for organizations like WAA, SEMPO, AiMA, and AMA. Evan writes for Search Engine Land’s “Analyze This” column and is the creator of Atlanta Analytics, a blog focused on translating web language into business language. Evan also manages the twitter feed @learnanalytics where people can have their web analytics questions answered for free, and is a contributor on the Google Analytics help forums. Recently, Evan created a breakthrough tag management system called Satellite, designed from the ground up to help empower marketers and analysts to have total control of the web measurement and analysis process.