How to ensure you ask the right questions of your data


Our team at Google recently talked to web analysts who say they spend half their time answering basic analytics questions for other people in their organization.

In fact, a recent 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 at Google recently 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 actions that will actually be taken, and which are aligned with your business. 

2. No analysts work in a silo; know what all your different teams are doing

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 then be far better positioned to help them.

3. Automate your reporting so you can spend more time asking questions of data

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, Search Engine Watch’s sister site, I outlined some ways to get started with automating dashboard updates in order to focus your time on analysis.

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4. Executive summaries of your dashboards shared with your team are a chance for real-time feedback

As I’ve shared before in my piece ‘Five steps to report marketing results like a boss‘, never send a dashboard without an executive summary outlining 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

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 spend 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).

Adam Singer is Analytics Advocate at Google.

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