How To Ensure You Ask The Right Questions Of Your Data


The following is a cross-post of my semi-regular Analytics column, previously published on Search Engine Watch but new for readers here. You can read all my previous columns on SEW here.

Our team at Google frequently talks to web analysts, who say they spend about half their time answering basic analytics questions for other people in their organization. In fact, a report from Forrester found 57% of marketers find it difficult to give their stakeholders in different functions access to their data and insights. To help, our team launched a new feature in Analytics to help you better understand “what happened?” questions of your data, such as “how many visitors to my site from California arrived via paid search?”

But the right “why and what next” questions are not always so easy to consider, let alone answer. Posing the wrong questions wastes precious time, and with only so many hours in the day to use your data effectively you need to become really skilled at knowing what questions to ask when analyzing results so you find answers that are actionable and relevant. Let’s go through some ways you can get better at this.

1. Have the right objectives and KPIs established before your team begins executing

I’ve advised countless companies on measurement planning over the years and continue to stress the importance of this both online and at events. If you haven’t conducted measurement planning and established what your success metrics are up front, get started today. Without this, you will never ask the right questions of your data because you’ll always be boiling the analytics ocean instead of focusing on the metrics that really matter. Establishing objectives and KPIs is the best thing you can do to ensure you always ask relevant questions that lead to action that will actually get done and are aligned with your business.

2. No analysis work in a silo: know what all your different teams are doing: product, sales, marketing, etc

If you are sitting in your analyst ivory tower all day, ultimately you will ask questions you think are interesting, but perhaps not ones which have answers your team cares about, or even really impact your business. Don’t be isolated, rather spend time with your different teams so you have your finger on the pulse of their projects and goals – you will be far better positioned to help them.

3. Automate your reporting so you can spend more time asking questions of data and less time doing repeat work

Updating custom dashboards, spreadsheets, and reports manually is a time-consuming process. It’s also one no one really enjoys doing. Sure, it’s quicker to do it once, but over time, automation will save you a lot of effort, effort which is better spent asking questions of your data to tease out meaningful insights to inform your marketing. In a previous column on ClickZ I out lined some ways to get started with this critical effort.

4. Executive summaries of your dashboards shared with your team are a chance for real-time feedback to know if you are asking the right questions

As I’ve shared before, never send a dashboard without an executive summary with the main takeaways. Your summary inevitably will include insights from questions you asked of your data when reviewing the visualizations and trends. And this summary in turn will almost always generate responses from those who you have the dashboard tailored for – all too critical for us as analysts to close the feedback loop on our analysis. Don’t ignore it.

5. Don’t waste too much time on unanswerable questions, especially if they aren’t that important

We’ve all been there when a team member asks you a question about an outlier in a given month. Maybe you had a huge spike in high bounce traffic you can’t seem to find a reason for. Usually in these such cases it didn’t matter anyway other than satisfying someone’s curiosity – but you could have spent hours on end going down the rabbit hole to try and determine why something happened that might not have been that important in the first place. In my experience nearly all the “unanswerable” questions end up being ones which didn’t matter much anyway.

6. Educate your wider marketing team on the data sources your company has access to

Without knowing what it is your analysis tools are capturing you can’t meaningfully ask good questions. So as part of onboarding new team members be sure you educate them on what data sources you have access to. The other benefit on educating your team is if someone senior like your CMO asks a question beyond the scope of your current reporting capabilities, it can be a good opportunity to research how you might answer that question and potentially ask for an increased budget if required (something we all want more of).

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