Analytics Career Advice from Top Industry Experts

 

I get dozens of emails from people every week asking for career advice in web analytics. The questions range from ‘Where to start’, ‘which books to read’, ‘how to prepare for GAIQ’ to how to become a good analyst. So I thought why not dedicate a whole post on answering these burning questions and also ask the top industry experts about it.

Today I have the great honor of interviewing 3 of the most respected and well known authorities in the field of web Analytics: Jim Sterne, Neil Patel and Gary Angel:

 Jim SterneJim-Sterne

Follow him on: Twitter  LinkedIn

 

Jim Sterne is an internationally known speaker and consultant to Fortune 500 companies and Internet entrepreneurs. Sterne focuses his twenty years in sales and marketing on measuring the value of a Web site as a medium for creating and strengthening customer relationships. He has written five books on Internet advertising, marketing, customer service, email marketing and web analytics. He is the founder of the eMetrics Marketing Optimization Summit and co-founder of Digital Analytics Association.

 Neil Patelneil-patel

Follow him on: Twitter  LinkedIn

Neil Patel is the co-founder of 2 Internet companies: Crazy Egg and KISSmetrics. Through his entrepreneurial career he has helped large corporations such as Amazon, AOL, GM, HP and Viacom make more money from the web.  By the age of 21 not only was he named one of the top influencers on the web according to the Wall Street Journal, but he was also named one of the top entrepreneurs in the nation by Entrepreneur Magazine.He has also been recognized as a top 100 entrepreneur under the age of 30 by President Obama.

 Gary Angelgary-angel

Follow him on: Twitter  LinkedIn

 

Gary Angel is President and CTO at Semphonic, a digital measurement and data analytics consulting firm. His ground-breaking work in hands-on web analytics includes the development of Functionalism, pioneering work in the creation of SEM analytics as a discipline and numerous methodological improvements to the field of web analytics and the study of online behavior. He is the recipient of the Digital Analytics Association’s Award for Excellence as The Most Influential Industry Contributor.

 

What sort of skills and qualifications are required to become a good digital analyst?

Jim:  A good digital analyst needs three primary skills:

1. An understanding of the data. Where did the bits come from? What do they really represent? How trustworthy are they?

2. An understanding of the problem to be solved. What insights are useful rather than merely interesting?

3. An ability to communicate well. Valuable, useful insights are worthless if they are not shared convincingly.

Neil: If you want to be a good digital analyst, you have to be good with numbers. Your job would be to analyze the effectiveness of any digital marketing channel such as social media, mobile, or even email. If you can’t figure out if a channel is profitable for a company and you can’t predict how it will grow 30, 60, or even 90 days out, you aren’t cut out to be a digital analyst.

Other than being good with numbers, you need to know how to use Excel and PowerPoint so you can help create a marketing plan for your director or VP.  Lastly you need to be able to provide insights. Marketers already have enough reports… they are looking for insights. As an analyst you need to help the company gauge it’s overall performance when it comes to digital marketing.

Gary: If you’re just starting out, I don’t think there is a specific set of skills and qualifications that are required. We hire a lot of “fresh out of college” employees to train and they have a wide range of backgrounds. We’ve hired people with CS backgrounds, Econ, Math, Genetics, Psychology and even History. My degree is in Philosophy.

There are a couple of core skills we do look for. We give our employees an Excel exercise and we give them access to SC or GA to do an analysis of our site (sans any training). So we assume that people can learn how to navigate software on their own. We assume that if they don’t know how to do something (and most don’t know how to do the Excel exercise at first), they can figure it out using the Internet and Help. Figuring things out like that is definitely a core skill for an analyst! In terms of the presentation, we look for people who can use the data to draw conclusions not just parrot back reports. They nearly always get the inferences wrong (digital data is complex), but we’re much more concerned that they have the inclination to do that.

So from a starting perspective, the requirements and qualifications are very low. But to become a “good” digital analyst? You have to know your tools fairly deeply. Analytics is a craft and tools are the key to craft. You certainly have to understand the digital channel. It’s a huge advantage to have built a Website, run a Google Adwords campaign, or created a social presence. Effective measurement requires a largely intuitive understanding of these things that’s very difficult to create except by actual use.  Probably the most important thing is developing a feel for how the numbers work, which are important, and what doesn’t feel right. The best way to develop that skill is repetition – lots and lots of analysis.

Finally, I think it’s very hard to become a really skilled analyst without having at least a few framework methodologies. We teach our analysts stuff like Functionalism, Use-case Analysis, and 2-Tiered Segmentation not because they cover every situation (though they are frequently useful), but because they provide handy ways to think about digital behavioral measurement.

All my other answers are shorter…promise!

 

What makes a good analyst a great analyst?

Jim: A good analyst becomes a great analyst when he or she is able to creatively put two and two together. They understand the data and the problem well enough to invent new ways of respectively using them to solve it. The great analyst has a strong imagination and enjoys playing with ideas.

Neil: As a great analyst, first and foremost you need to learn how to make decisions based off of data versus your gut. In addition to that you have to understand how marketing can ramp up or down or maybe even be cyclical in some cases. All of these factors affect how profitable a channel is and you need to determine if they are worth pursuing.

 For example, if the marketing team started email marketing campaigns and you know that they are losing you money, you may want to cut the program, but before you do so you need to analyze the channel to get a good understand of when the data shows it can break even and what your long term return on investment will be.

Gary: The ability to focus on what’s important from a business perspective and the very elusive ability to leap from data to solution. It’s simply mistaken to believe that data suggests action. Data suggests behavior. The appropriate business action must be inferred and that inference is guided by but not the same as analysis.

 

Lot of marketers seems to confuse Digital analytics with Google Analytics. Similarly the difference between digital analyst and business analyst is not clear for many. How you would go about explaining the differences?

Jim: Digital Analyst answers to questions about the success of all of the marketing efforts; not only which campaigns were getting the most attention, but which resulted in the most long-term value to the company.

They share analytics tricks with the business intelligence community, addressing more and more data streams from an optimization angle. They use panel data, survey data, customer satisfaction data, retail sales figures, and even weather reports to create predictive marketing models and marketing dashboards for senior executives.

So according to Jim, you need to do lot more than Google Analytics in order to become proficient in digital analytics.

Neil: In a nutshell, digital analytics is the use of data and metrics to gauge the overall performance of a business in regards to their digital marketing efforts.

You can do some of the things with Google Analytics, but not all of them. For example, Google Analytics can’t tell you the lifetime value of your customer, or the ROI of your social media spend. With a lot of modifications/custom work to Google Analytics you can get it to provide you with some of that data… but it isn’t an easy task.

Gary: Confusing GA with Digital Analytics is like confusing a saw with carpentry.

As for the difference between a digital analyst and business analyst, I think the distinction is much less clear. There are quite a number of analytic disciplines. I know supply-chain analysts, health-science analysts, and trading systems analysts. Each has to have deep domain knowledge and they work with a somewhat different set of tools. Digital analysts have a specific domain with all that implies, but I’m not sure there is any deeper divide.

 

Which blogs, books and conferences do you recommend to enhance analytical skills?

Jim: The eMetrics Summit, of course!

Neil: One blog that I recommend reading is: http://www.kaushik.net/avinash/. Avinash know the analytics space like the back of his hand and he has written some great books on it such as: Web Analytics: An Hour A Day, or Web Analytics 2.0.  You can also check out the KISSmetrics blog as we discuss digital analytics.

Gary: It’s not so easy to improve your analytical skills with any of these – though all are peripheral sources of interest. To really improve your skills you have to practice. I really do think of analytics as a craft. If I was learning carpentry, it’s a safe bet that books, blogs, and conferences would be far down on the list of top learning activities.

I tend to think that books that are somewhat broader and outside our discipline are most likely to be interesting and useful. I’m very partial to Stephen Jay Gould and a book like Full House is good reading for an analyst. I’d also recommend the Fog of War – a documentary about Robert McNamara. I think he was a brilliant analyst, and it’s fascinating to see how, with primitive tools, he was able to consistently make the leap to the vitally important points. It’s also, of course, a commentary on all that go wrong with even brilliant analysis. If your more literary, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is an interesting reflection on the importance of craftsmanship. I’ve made these recommendations before – but they hold up because they are fundamentally about analysis and craftsmanship not short-term technologies or industry trends.

Naturally I’m partial to the X Change Conference as well. It’s a great place to really get to know fellow practitioners and talk at a pretty deep level. I keep hammering the craft analogy, but the Conference is really designed to facilitate the kind of conversation, mentoring, and sharing that are necessary to craftsmanship.

 

What do you think were the most important developments in digital analytics in 2012?

Jim: The popularization of Big Data. We’ve been doing it for years and now we have a name for it!

Neil: In 2012 software companies have been focusing on providing much more detailed insight on each individual customer. For example, at KISSmetrics we don’t focus on tracking vanity metrics like bounce rates, instead we focus on tracking people. This way you can get a better understanding of the lifetime value of your customers, or churn, or average time before a customer purchases.

If we didn’t have tracking that was based on individual people versus “visitors” we, as well as other software companies, wouldn’t be able to provide you with that data.

Gary: The emergence of a set of tools and systems for digital personalization. For analytics to matter, it has to drive business change. There’s many ways that can happen, but in digital none is more impactful or ubiquitous than personalization.  So while you could make a strong case for something like Hadoop being more important to analytics, in the long run, I think it’s the application of analytics and the opportunities created by personalization systems that is most important.

 

What do you think will be the key trends and challenges for digital analytics in 2013?

Jim: The practical application of Big Data that will make people realize that, while the hype was fun, the actual, practical, tactical use of it is important.

Neil: As for trends I think there will be much more evolution to people tracking and how digital analytics are tracking individuals and showing that data in an easy to understand as well as actionable format.

As for challenges, I think companies are going to have data overload. This means analyst need to do a better job of crunching data for others within the company, and software solutions need to do a better job of providing actionable insights so that analysts have an easier job.

Gary: Of a piece with my answer above, I think deciding who/what owns the customer profile in digital is going to be the decisive technology battleground in 2013. The decision organizations make around that question will ultimately determine the whole shape of their technology stack and much of their organizational structure.

 

My Views and Tips

Since it is my blog, it would be unfair to end this post without writing few words about what I think about career in web analytics and its future. First of all I used the words ‘web analytics’ and ‘digital analytics’ interchangeably in this post. They are not really the same thing. Web analytics is the subset of Digital analytics. When we talk about digital analytics we talk about digital measurement not just on our website but beyond it: mobile, social media, offline impact etc.

There is an old saying “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”. For example we can’t manage marketing campaigns if we can’t measure its performance. But what I have found after my stint in the world of digital analytics is that “you can’t effectively measure what you can’t manage”.

For example if you are measuring the performance of a SEO campaign you must know how SEO works in the first place. You must know about the latest and greatest in the field of Search. You must know all about Google Panda, Penguin, Link Building, Authorship, semantic markups, best practices etc. If you don’t then this lack of knowledge reflects in your recommendations which are the most important part of any analysis. Without solid recommendations any analysis has no commercial value as it can’t move the corporate needle. I have talked more about giving solid recommendations in the post: Excellent Analytics Tip #101: Getting your things done right now

Needless to say, marketing and analytics complement each other. You can’t be good in either without a great understanding of both disciplines. I also think that you need a great understanding of statistics in order to be good in analytics. I was suggested to learn the basics of accounting. But I think this skill is more relevant to people who are into business intelligence. Regarding preparation for GAIQ test, the best place to learn is conversion university, the second best place is Google Analytics itself.  Without practical knowledge you will have hard time passing this test.

Related Post: GAIQ Test Preparation – Tips from the Veteran + GAIQ Sample Questions


Following is the list of blogs, books and conferences I recommend:

  1. Occam ’s razor by Avinash Kaushik – yes we all know about it. But if I haven’t included it would be blasphemy ;)
  2. Kiss Metrics – another well know blog I read. What I most like about this blog is that its blog posts are easy to understand, to the point and all the tips and tricks are backed up with real life examples.
  3. Conversion Rate Experts Blog – I like their blog because of the case studies they present. Very powerful and very informative.
  4. Online Behavior by Daniel Waisberg – Here you can find all the top notch analytics experts on the planet sharing their wisdom.
  5. Analytics Talk  by Justin Cutroni – being a Google Analytics certified I am naturally biased towards Google Analytics and Justin’s blog on GA is a great way to stay in touch with the latest and greatest in the field of Google Analytics.
  6. Web Analytics World – another great hub of collective intelligence in the field of analytics.
  7. Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics by Brian Clifton – I own this book and can tell you first hand that is the best book on Google Analytics out there.
  8. Web Analytics 2.0: The Art of Online Accountability and Science of Customer Centricity  by Avinash Kaushik – As the name suggest it explains web analytics 2.0 frame work in great detail. This book can build solid foundation for your analytics career.
  9. Microsoft Excel 2010: Data Analysis and Business Modeling 3rd Edition – This is a great book to learn the statistics which really matter for digital analytics professionals. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to become a great analyst.
  10. eMetrics Marketing Optimization Summit – I attended this conference in London last year and can tell you first hand that this is the conference you want to be in if you want to learn about the latest and greatest in the field of digital analytics. Other great thing about this conference is that it is organized all around the world. So you really don’t have any excuse not to attend it.
  11. X-Change Web Analytics Conference – I haven’t got the chance to attend this conference yet but I have heard lot of good things about it.  I am waiting for them to come to London.

 

Other good posts related to career in Web Analytics

1. Analytics Career Advice: Job Titles, Salaries, Technical & Business Roles

2. Web Analytics Career Guide: From Zero To Hero In Five Steps!

3. Web Analytics Career Advice: Play In The Real World!

 

Other Posts you may find usefulBeginners Guide to Maths and Stats behind Web Analytics

 

 

Himanshu Sharma About the Author: is the founder of seotakeaways.com which provides SEO Consulting, PPC Management and Analytics Consulting services to medium and large size businesses. He holds a bachelors degree in ‘Internet Science’, is a member of 'Digital Analytics Association', a Google Analytics Certified Individual and a Certified Web Analyst. He is also the founder of EventEducation.com and EventPlanningForum.net.

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