The Year of the Analyst

[Originally published in Colorado Biz]

The advent of digital brought with it the incredible measurability of the online channel. When coupled with a recession, where every dollar counts and profitability of every move is questioned, data-informed decisions have become critical to many companies. Analytics is not just reserved for companies at the top, but is becoming a cost of successfully doing business.

It’s not just about the collection of copious amounts of data, but on the integration and use of it. Ultimately, companies need the right resources in place to analyze, interpret and recommend new courses of action. A heavy investment in tools, without investment in people, is seldom successful.

Welcome to the new breed of analysts. Whether companies are hiring a “web”, “digital”, “cross-channel”, “marketing” or “business” analyst, there’s no doubt that it’s a great time to be a data geek.

Increased demand

The demand for analysts is directly related to the growth of online business, aided by the proliferation of mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets. The responsibility of the “Web Analyst”, whose role was initially focused just on behavior on a company’s website, has already expanded in scope, evolving to include online, mobile, social and traditional channels, as well as the integration of online and offline.

Those already working in digital analytics can attest to the barrage of recruiter calls to coax experienced analysts over to a new company, as the demand exceeds the number of analytics professionals available in the market.

Greater awareness at the college level

Growing awareness of the profession at the college level will help to (slowly) fill some of this demand. Educational institutions are starting to introduce courses tailored specifically at this new field. The University of British Columbia began offering an award program in web analytics in 2005, and other schools are following suit, with certificate programs or course work within marketing focusing on digital analytics.

The existence of these programs can help make students aware of a career in digital analytics. Programs such as Marketing, IT, Business, Economics, Mathematics and Statistics continue to lay a great foundation for a career in digital analytics, and still represent the majority of the entry points into the field, but these new dedicated courses allow students to learn enough to hit the ground running in a junior role.

An abundance of resources

For someone interested in joining this growing field, there are a number of ways to get involved. The Digital Analytics Association (DAA) has chapters across the U.S. and provides local events, education, conference discounts, research, standards, training, awards, certification and great professional networking opportunities.

The Analysis Exchange is a program that provides a “student” of analytics with hands-on experience tackling the analytics challenges of a non-profit, supported by an experienced mentor. Another option to gain experience is to volunteer your services to a local charity or small business. The availability of free tools means anyone can get their feet wet in this industry.

For professional networking and to talk to those already in the industry, attend a Web Analytics Wednesdays or DAA local symposium, or getting involved via social media. There are digital analytics groups on Twitter via the #measure hashtag, Facebook, Linked In and Yahoo. Ask questions, and you’ll be surprised at who will take the time to answer them.

In addition, companies are creating more opportunities for those looking to break into the field. For example, Red Door Interactive created an internship program that helps students get hands on experience in a variety of areas, including analytics. The interns not only help collect and analyse data, but they learn how an agency works and how to be a part of a cross-functional team.

For companies needing to hire analytics professionals, it can be tough, and it’s not likely to change soon. Good analysts are typically happily employed and frequently recruited, so companies need to be open to developing entry-level or junior analysts on the job, consider internal candidates with compatible skill sets, allow flexible working arrangements (like remote employees) or make an offer too good to refuse. As long as demand continues to exceed the availability of resources, it will continue to be an analyst’s market.

The Most Undervalued Analytics Tool: Communication [with Partners]

In this series of posts, I look at how you can communicate better within your team, with other departments, with executives and with external partners. My advice is based on what I’ve found successful in my own experience. Have other ideas to improve communication? Please add them in the comments, or email me

Communication with partners

No business works 100% alone. You’ll frequently work with vendors, agencies and consultants, and how you work with them can impact not only your success, but how successful they can be for you. One of the first things I learned moving from the client side to the agency side is just how crucial that communication between client and agency partner is. Help us to help you!

So how can you open those channels of communication?

1. Communicate early and often. The more a partner knows about your business, the better they can help you. The worst thing is investing time and effort into recommendations or a project for a client and finding out it doesn’t align with their business goals.

This doesn’t just mean just a one-time communication when you start the engagement. You need to keep up constant contact with partners. Tell them about new initiatives, new channels you’re moving into, even minor site changes.

2. Open communication. If you need an NDA to communicate openly, get it. But failing to give a partner frank and honest information is setting them up to fail, and wasting your time and money in engaging them.

3. Share your priorities. Make sure that your partner understands your priorities. What is going to be most impactful for you? In what order should they tackle what?

Benjamin Gaines from Adobe delivered a stellar presentation about “10 Things Your Vendor Wishes You Did Better” at Web Analytics Demystified’s Accelerate SF in 2011. His points easily apply to consultants and agencies. I highly recommend reading it to better understand how to communicate with your partners.

Closing Thoughts: A Culture of Communication

Yes, corporate cultures with really great, open communication are typically that way because it comes from the top. But don’t rest on that. You as an individual can and should try to improve communication amongst your fellow analysts, with other departments, with executives and with partners. Your success may even help highlight the importance of communication for others, and help build that culture from the ground up.

My advice is by no means exhaustive, but rather what I’ve found successful in my own experience on the client and agency side. Have some other ideas to improve communication? Please add them in the comments, or email me

The Most Undervalued Analytics Tool: Communication [with Executives & Stakeholders]

In this series of posts, I look at how you can communicate better within your team, with other departments, with executives and with external partners. My advice is based on what I’ve found successful in my own experience. Have other ideas to improve communication? Please add them in the comments, or email me

Communication with executives and stakeholders

This is something analysts often struggle with. (I’ve actually heard the words “and then I used a vlookup…” come out of an analyst’s mouth when talking to Vice President.) A lot of what we do is very detailed, but executives don’t care about the details. Ultimately, you won’t have any impact if you can’t communicate with executives. So how do you do this?

1. Build trust. Provide the right data. Tagging errors or analysis mistakes do (unfortunately) happen, but trust is hard to build, and easy to lose. Besides the obvious detailed QA of your work, be sure to step back and ask yourself, does this make sense? If your analytics spidey-sense is tingling, don’t share the data yet – make sure you validate it until you’re certain it’s correct.

One thing I found helpful is to try to answer the same question two different ways. Often there are different ways to go about answering an analytics problem. By trying it multiple ways, you’ll make sure that the two answers “jive” with each other. The goal isn’t to get identical answers, but just to make sure that different methods all lead you to the same place.

2. Focus on the big picture. As Albert Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” No matter how complex, you need to be able to step back and explain to someone who doesn’t live and breathe analytics. As you work through your presentation, consider the detail you’re providing. Is it truly necessary to tell the story? Or could you further simplify?

It can also be useful to practice explaining your findings to someone completely uninvolved. Think back to high school and college, where your essay needed to be able to be read and understood by someone who had never heard of the topic. This is no different.

3. Use the right style. Every executive is different. You need to know who you are presenting to. The way that you present to your CFO, who might want to see more of “the math” for him to trust your work, might be different to the way that you might present to your VP of Sales. Know who you are presenting to, and what works for them. So while, yes, you do need to focus on the big picture, you also need to be conscious of which executives might need to see a little more detail to feel comfortable relying on your analysis.

I once worked with one EVP who had a habit of asking “tangent” questions. His questions were always reasonable, but not necessarily something I had planned on covering in the meeting. However, I quickly learned to ask myself while preparing, “What would [Fred] ask?” I then had that answer at the ready, for when he inevitably asked. This had a number of benefits. Obviously, it meant I was prepared to answer his questions, and that helped build his trust in me. It also forced me to think through possibly questions people might have, which helped me to validate my analysis and my thinking. But on a practical note, it also meant we kept meetings on track. When I could deal with his questions, have the answers quickly available and move on, we didn’t get sidetracked from the overall purpose of the meeting, or get put on hold until I could answer those additional questions.

4. Know your stuff. You can’t underestimate the value of knowing your business and data inside and out. This doesn’t mean you need to have every data point for your business memorized – it is okay to say, “I’ll get back to you on that” sometimes – but you should know the critical metrics inside and out. This comes in handy not only in meetings (when those tangent questions come up) but for chance encounters. If your company recently launched a major initiative and you bump into your CEO in the lunch room, you do yourself a huge favour when you can answer, “So, how’s Project X doing?” off the top of your head.

Other resources: As I mentioned at the beginning of this series, I don’t know everything. These are just a few tips, based on what has worked for me in the past. Recently, Kevin Hillstrom published 31 Tips for Communicating with Executives, which is well worth your time to read.

Next post: Communication with partners (vendors, agencies & consultants)

The Most Undervalued Analytics Tool: Communication [Across Departments]

In this series of posts, I look at how you can communicate better within your team, with other departments, with executives and with external partners. My advice is based on what I’ve found successful in my own experience. Have other ideas to improve communication? Please add them in the comments, or email me

Part 2: Communication across departments

While communication amongst analysts can be lacking, communication across departments can also cause challenges. Where departments aren’t communicating, analysts can’t be effective because they have no idea what’s going on. There’s often a perception that analysts just need to stare at the data, and insights will magically materialise. However, it is impossible to provide any impactful analysis without an understanding of business goals, recent initiatives and changes that might have impacted the data. Analytics needs to become tightly integrated with other departments for analysts to be able to provide true value.

So how can you improve on this?

1. Get integrated. Yes, easier said than done. But it needs to happen. As an individual, there’s nothing to stop you befriending someone from another department and setting up a weekly or monthly lunch. You’ll get the inside scoop on what they’re working on, and be able to talk about the value you could add that they might be unaware of.

Location can play a role too. I have seen success from analysts sitting with the product team, rather than with the analytics team. These weren’t decentralised analysts (they were still a part of the analytics team) – they were just physically located in a different part of the building. In my case, I was responsible for web and advertising analytics, and actually shared an office with the advertising product manager. Between having in-office discussions, overhearing phone conversations, and getting last minute, “Hey, you should be in this meeting” invites, something as simple as where my desk was had a huge influence on my ability to make an impact.

2. Right place, right time – aka meetings. Yes, we all hate meetings. But too often, analysts don’t know about projects until it is too late, where their insight could have added significant value during discovery and planning. By becoming better integrated with other departments and getting in the right meetings, you’ll be able to make those contributions (and get invited to further crucial meetings.)

So how do you get invited, if you’re not currently being looped in? If you hear about a meeting where you think you could contribute, see if you can invite yourself along. (And then, you know, make sure you actually contribute.) Consider the long-term value of your involvement, and avoid the all-too-tempting “but I’m too busy to attend more meetings…” The more you’re involved and show the benefit of that involvement, the more they’ll want to involve you.

3. Prove the value. This one is simple. As you start contributing and providing valuable insight, other departments and stakeholders will want more. If you give stakeholders valuable information, help them make better decisions and make them look better, they’ll want you involved all the time. So don’t wait for requests – be proactive, see where you can add value (after all, no one knows it better than you!) and just do it. Once you prove your value, you’ll have the opposite problem – they’ll want to integrate you into everything they do.

4. Bribery. Let’s say you need the help of another department to execute on something you need. I’m not ashamed to admit it – I resort to bribery.

On the client side, I worked with our Enterprise Data Warehouse teams on some large data warehousing and BI projects. This team was always swamped and had a backlog that could truly take them years to get through, and my request was just one of many. So I focused on building a relationship with the team. I attended their scrum meetings, to make sure I was there to speak to questions about what I needed built (in a timely fashion.) Soon I was invited to their team lunches and happy hours. I even brought in treats for them when I knew I was asking a lot from them. (See? Bribery.) And you know what? Things I needed got prioritized. Moral of the story? You get more projects completed with cookies than you do with yelling!

Bribery probably sounds bad, but it really comes down to just showing others that you appreciate what they are doing for you. Yes, it’s “their job”, but a little appreciation goes a long way.

Next post: Communication with executives and stakeholders 

The Most Undervalued Analytics Tool: Communication

Recently, I was asked what I felt the most “undervalued tool” in analytics was. I know they expected me to name a specific solution that didn’t have the recognition it deserved, or some new gem I had found. However, when I pondered this, I realised what is most undervalued is not a tool, but rather communication.

All too often, companies struggle to realise the impact of analytics, and blame it on the solutions they have in place. It is easy to be swayed by shiny dashboards and talk of “seamless integration” and think a new solution will cure all your ills. However, if new (and often expensive) solutions are being layered on top of fundamental flaws in communication, you’ll fail to see the value of those investments. Moreover, while companies are often willing to drop some serious cash to bring in the new miracle vendor, the same investments are rarely made in improving communication within and between departments.

In this series of posts, I’ll look at how you can communicate better within your team, with other departments, with executives and with external partners. My advice is by no means exhaustive, but rather what I’ve found successful in my own experience on the client and agency side. Have some other ideas to improve communication? Please add them in the comments, or email me.

Communication within your team

Often, analytics teams struggle to communicate even within their group. This may be partly due to organisational structure (for example, decentralised analysts across an organisation) or even personality types (your stereotypical shy analyst who struggles to communicate.)

Failure to communicate within a team can lead to inconsistent methodology across analysts, as well as duplication of work. Two stakeholders may approach two different analysts for the same report or analysis. A failure to communicate may therefore not only result in a waste of resources, but when coupled with inconsistent methodology, produce duplicated analyses with different results. This typically wastes further resources to tease out whose answer is “right”, and get to the bottom of why they differ.

So what should we be doing within our teams?

1. Talk to each other! The value of actual, face-to-face conversation is sorely overlooked these days. Far too much communication takes place over email or IM. However, the complexity of analytics discussions often means email is not a great forum! So instead of firing off your seventh reply in a chain of emails, consider just getting up and walking over to your fellow analyst, or picking up the phone. Even a ten minute meeting (much as we loathe adding more meetings to calendars) can quickly resolve what would otherwise be hours of back and forth via email.

2. Short, regular meetings. A quick daily check-in can work wonders. For five or ten minutes, analysts mention what they’re working on, what they’re struggling with or something they delivered recently. This can spur a, “Wait, I provided something just like that last month, let me find it for you” conversation (saving duplication of work), or even allow analysts to help each other with challenges: “We do have that data that you need, let me show you where it is.”

On the client side, our analytics team met for a daily “scrum” style standup meeting, with exactly these benefits. On the agency side at Red Door, we have five to ten minute “huddles” to discuss our priority for the day, any recent wins, where you might be stuck and need someone’s help. It’s a minimal time investment, but helps keep you in touch with what others are working on.

3. Documentation. Document your processes, your data sets, your deliverables. Yes, it’s boring. Do it anyway.

4. Central repository of analytics deliverables. Having a central place to store analytics work, especially if you can tag work with different topics it relates to, can allow analysts to search for related analyses. Even just keeping a common Google Doc that lists the analyses you’ve all done, with a brief description, is better than nothing!

5. Sharing meetings. Consider regular meetings for analysts to present findings from recent analyses to each other. Not only will this give you insight into what other analysts are working on, but it gives analysts a chance to practice their presentation skills.

At Red Door, we actually have company-wide “Expos”, where teams will share what they have worked on and recent wins. As companies grow, it is difficult to hear about what others have been working on. This is a great way to get everyone on the same page.

One note on these fixes: it is easy for an individual analyst to stand back and blame a failure of communication on organisational structure, and believe that integration needs to be demanded from the top. However, there are things you can do as an individual. Your boss doesn’t demand a daily touch base amongst analysts? Call together the troops for an informal, “while you get coffee” meeting in the kitchen and do it yourselves. No mandated sharing meeting? Set one up yourself – do it over lunch if you need to. Ultimately you’ll benefit, and it will even give you an example of your initiative to show your boss or a future employer.

Next post: Communication across departments