We recently had a Hajj-like gathering of all Semphonic consultants at the headquarters in California, to plan generally for 2008 and discuss web analytics more broadly. One topic that came up was the question: Will Web Analytics still exist as a separate discipline in a few years’ time? It was an offhand remark during lunch, but left me pondering some basic identity issues about Web Analytics as a separate consulting discipline.
The argument goes like this: companies will eventually realize that online business success is not just complimentary to, or an interesting side of, overall business success, but is actually the same thing. This means that a traditional Web Analytics consulting company will no longer be justified in coming in and optimizing the web channel, but must necessarily focus also on all facets of a given business, both online and offline.
Take advertising effectiveness, for example. Traditional web analysts can analyze the quality of leads coming from all online media – banners, PPC, emails, etc. But increasingly, I’ve seen offline media work its way into the picture: vanity URL’s tied to TV, Direct Mail, or other Print media; call center integration with distinct phone numbers or robust visitor sourcing; online activity correlated with offline spending behavior matched through credit card or telephone numbers; more nebulous but certainly valid concepts like “brand equity” associated with website interaction and compared to offline advertising. Where once online cost-per-conversion was the baseline KPI for advertising effectiveness, we now have “lifetime visitor value” or “lifetime user margin”, encompassing all online and offline customer value. “We propose to analyze and optimize your website” may well give way to “We propose to analyze your business,” in this way of thinking.
Such an expansion is exciting, but also dangerous. There already are numerous consultancies who claim to look at all facets of a business and provide comprehensive consulting around this. These are the Accentures and McKinseys of the world, with vast resources, histories, relationships, and branding, against which any Web Analytics consultancy would stand little chance. Web Analytics consultants have thrived in the last few years largely because such companies do not have the expertise to analyze or integrate web data into the “big picture”, and because the online channel has always seemed independent and distinct, with its own “peculiar” issues and challenges, and managed by separate teams within an organization. But if the online business success starts to be treated (as it should be) as consubstantial with general business success, these consulting directions may start to converge. Along this train of thought, Web Analytics consultants will either be bought up by the big consulting agencies, or will have to diversify or partner in order to tackle the non-web aspects of business success.
I don’t think this has to be the case. Web Analytics can continue to be its own discipline and field of expertise as long as the online channel remains at the core of the consulting engagement. A Web Analyst can be happy to analyze call-center data, but only in the context of call-center savings because the same visitors use the website instead of the telephone. Offline conversions are interesting in so far as the same people can be identified as also visiting the website, or were sourced online originally. By not keeping the online channel as the focus of analysis or consulting, Web Analysts run the risk of losing their identity. In my view, Web Analytics consulting has a future as long as it remains true to its core: the online presence of a company and how it contributes to business success.