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Three Steps to Data-Driven Decisions with Web Analytics

Beyond "reportics"
University Business, March 2013
Invest your time in creating analytics goals aligned with institutional priorities.

As I noted in my previous column on the digital web in higher ed, digital analytics is bound to play an increasing role this year. Whether they call it big data, business intelligence, or analytics, many decision-makers on campus have been converted to the power of the data-driven approach. Make a difference with web analytics at your institution by taking these three steps.

1. Make sure you track everything.

According to my “The 2012 State of Web Analytics in Higher Education” report, 97 percent of institutions track web data. But, there is tracking ... and tracking. To make data-driven decisions, you need the full picture of what’s happening on your site. Google Analytics, the web analytics application used the most by colleges, does a pretty good job tracking data out-of-the box—as long as it is set properly.

Amy Pizzolatto, a multimedia content specialist at The University of Chicago, learned this lesson the hard way. About six years ago, separate tracking accounts were created for all the sites. Domain and subdomain tracking should have been set up. “If you don’t know how to set up your analytics account correctly, find somebody who can guide you through the process,” she advises.

To track outbound clicks (for example, to the Common Application online form), video views, PDF document downloads, etc., set event tracking in Google Analytics. This will require extra tracking codes on your web page template to work as intended, but provide a wealth of useful data. This is why Emory University (Ga.) added automated, categorized click-event tracking as part of its full website rebuild launched in November 2012. 

Also, tag digital campaigns to follow the footprints of visitors they bring. Email marketing, social media messages, and banner, keyword, or social advertising: It doesn’t matter what channel or medium you use for marketing or communication campaigns. You can properly tag any call-to-action link using the Google Analytics URL builder.

2. Automate the repetitive work.

Like any other analytics application, Google Analytics could drown you in its sea of metrics. Despite some recent improvement in the user interface, it’s still very easy to get lost looking at the default GA reports. Where should I look first? Where should I spend the hour I have every week to work with analytics? How can I make the most of this data? These questions are the ones I hear the most at conferences when I talk about using digital analytics in higher education.

Once you’ve taken care of the details related to data tracking, invest your time in the creation of GA goals (completed online forms, time spent on page, downloads, etc.) aligned with your institutional priorities. Without setting these conversion goals up front, you won’t be able to see if web visitors do what you expect them to do on your website. If you don’t have much time to spend on analytics, focusing on these “macro conversions” is the best bet. With a bit more time, you can also define some micro conversions—the steps usually taken by web visitors on the road to the big goal—to your mix.

You’ll really be able to perform effective data analysis once you’ve decluttered your reports. Invest a little time creating a customized dashboard featuring three to six data points pertaining to your top goals. “You can set up dashboards and automate their distribution very easily,” assures Alan Etkin, web analytics and project manager at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

3. Seek “business” question answers.

If web analytics was simply a bunch of reports, it would have been called “web reportics.” There are many approaches to analyzing web traffic data, but the easiest way is to look for answers. If you’re in charge of a Google Analytics account, you probably receive many requests about the number of page views or visitors your website gets. Let customized dashboards take care of these necessary evils and spend your time more wisely looking for answers to “larger” questions such as:

  • Should we keep printing as many course catalogs as we did in the past?
  • Should our next redesigned website be enhanced for browsing on mobile devices? 
  • What should we include in your new web navigation menu to meet the needs of our web visitor?

Start with a “business” question and you’ll be able to figure out the piece of digital information needed to find its answer. Then go look for the relevant data.