Breaking in to the Digital Analytics Field

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Over the past few years, I’ve been asked many times for advice on how to “get into digital analytics.” Without fail, these requests come from people who have gotten just enough of a taste of the field that they’re pondering a redirection of their career. After having written a long-ish email in response to one request…and then having forwarded that same email along multiple times in response to other requests…I realized I had this blog thing-y that might be more efficient than email forwards! This post is a (greatly) expanded update of that email.

But, Honestly, I’m Not the Best Person to Answer the Question…

Take anything in this post with a huge grain of salt, as it’s inherently a “Do as I say do…which only barely relates to what I did.” If you wanted to follow the Tim Wilson Digital Analytics Career Path Model, you would:

  1. Get a degree in architecture and start out your career drawing details of how drywall should be placed around windows in tilt-wall commercial building
  2. Change careers entirely within 3 years of getting that degree to become a technical writer
  3. Learn HTML while working on an intranet site for a group you supported as a technical writer
  4. Become the business owner of an online community at the same company where you taught yourself HTML (…because you’d taught yourself HTML)
  5. Inherent ownership of the web analytics tool because no one else wanted it
  6. Stumble into a web marcom manager role in the same company because a bunch of other people in the company changed jobs and they needed someone to backfill the marcom role…and take web analytics ownership with you
  7. Stumble (again) into a role in the BI department at that same company when you’d intended to simply transition web analytics ownership to them…

You get the idea. The steps in my career, while unique in detail, are similar to most of the people who have been working with web/digital analytics for a decade a more. We all started out doing something entirely different and only settled into digital analytics through the grace of random and fortuitous circumstance (semi-well-known trivia: Eric Peterson’s undergrad degree was in fungi — mycology!).

In short, I’m a lousy person to ask for a discrete set of steps — my own entry and development in the field has been much more of a drunken stagger than a measured march!

Read the rest of this post with that grain of salt tucked into your cheek, okay?

Most Important: Start Doing Analytics

On the one hand, getting paid to do digital analytics has the same Catch-22 as many professions: companies want even the “junior” people they hire to have at least some experience in the field. How do you get experience if you have to have experience?!

Luckily, with digital analytics, where there’s an interest, there’s a way. If one of the items on the list below isn’t a reasonable possibility for you, then stop reading this post and use your internet connection to contact someone to get you off of the remote desert island or distant planet where you must be stranded:

  • Get a login to your company’s web analytics account and start trying to answer questions about the visitors to your site. These don’t have to be actionable, earth-shattering questions by any means. Just ask questions and see if you can answer them. If there is a person or team who owns web analytics for the company, ask them what questions they get most often and see if you can answer them. Try to see how clearly you can explain where the data you’re seeing in the tool actually comes from.
  • Set up Google Analytics on a site where you can actually make changes to the site. The kicker here is that, ideally, you wouldn’t have to create a site from scratch to do this. It’s easy enough to set up a brand new site…but that site will have nearly zero traffic. That means nearly zero data. But, look around your personal network: which of your friends has a small business with a web site? Does your church have a site? What about your niece’s soccer league that your brother manages? As long as you promise that you won’t break the site (and it’s verrrrrrry low risk that you will), you can find someone who will let you implement Google Analytics and start doing some analysis for them.
  • Sign up as a Student for The Analysis Exchange.  This is an organization that connects non-profits with an analytics mentor (someone who has solid experience in the field) and a “student” (explicitly does not have to be someone who is formally in school — that’s a misperception they have to explain fairly often) to do a real project for a real organization. The projects are generally fairly short, so it’s not an inordinate amount of time. The challenge here is that it may take a while to get assigned to a project (if you find an organization and get the organization to sign up…you can, I think, ensure that the organization selects you as the student, though!).

Read a Book…Maybe

I’ve gotten the, “What’s a good book to read…?” question as part of the requests that spawned this post…and I always feel a little guilty when I recommend books that I haven’t actually read. I actually do quite a bit of industry-oriented reading, including books, but I tend to think what I’m reading isn’t necessarily a great fit for what the person who is asking is looking for.

The first book I read on web analytics was Jim Sterne’s Web Metrics: Proven Methods for Measuring Web Site Success. That book is now a decade old. Eric Peterson’s Web Analytics Demystified: A Marketer’s Guide to Understanding How Your Web Site Affects Your Business is only a couple of years younger. Both books absolutely nail both fundamental truisms and touch on aspects of “how the internet works (technically) from an analytics/data capture perspective.

But, the internet has evolved dramatically over the past decade. So, are those books still relevant? For chuckles, I grabbed Eric’s book and opened it to a random page (page 88) and read the first paragraph my eyes landed on. I’m not making this up. Here’s what it said:

Another important thing to keep in mind regarding campaign analysis is that there is no reason to limit your measurement to only online campaigns. For many successful businesses of reasonable size, online advertising is only part of the total marketing program. If you also run television spots, radio ads, print ads or create and distribute brochures, you can make a reasonable attempt at quantifying the effect each have at driving visitors to your Web site by creating unique, branded landing pages.

The only thing that is at all dated about this paragraph is that there is no mention of social media (the book was published the same year that Facebook was launched) or mobile devices.

A more recent book (2007) is Avinash Kaushik’s first book: Web Analytics: An Hour a Day. That’s a lengthier tome, but it’s designed to be consumable in bite-sized chunks. And, while I have a copy, I have only lightly skimmed it (see the note at the beginning of this post about taking my recommendations with a grain of salt), but the opinion of the industry is that it is a great resource.

There are some fantastic tool-specific books on Google Analytics (look for books by Brian Clifton, Justin Cutroni, and Caleb Whitmore) and Adobe Sitecatalyst (by Adam Greco), too.

In other words, if you’re a book-reader, there are books out there.

Read Some Blogs…Definitely

Get your blog reader of choice set up (I’m a Google Reader guy on my laptop and use Feedly on my iPad) and start subscribing to blogs. Rather than listing specific blogs — I’d inevitably include an inadvertent stinker or two, and I’d inevitably miss something — here are some places to start:

I also use Zite on my iPad for on-going content discovery by including Google Analytics, Web Analytics, and Analytics categories in the app.

Meet #measure

If you’re not active on Twitter — both consumption-wise and conversation-wise — then this won’t be a useful tip. But, if you are, then set up a stream for #measure. To be clear:

  • There WILL be a lot of extraneous junk in this stream
  • You do NOT need to read everything — dip in and browse regularly
  • You WILL start to identify specific accounts worth following more closely pretty quickly (and, if they have a blog — add them to your blog list)
  • You CAN (and SHOULD) engage with the tweets you find interesting or have questions about

If you’re on the fence about using Twitter to dig in, then you can read more in this post (by me) or this post (by Michele Kiss…who is a more credible Twitter resource on that front!).

Attend Events

Conferences can be expensive, especially if they’re occurring in a place that requires air travel to get to. But, keep an eye on the schedules for #ACCELERATE, eMetrics, and DAA Symposiums (at some point, you will want to join the Digital Analytics Association and become involved as well) and see if you can come up with a way to attend. You’ll get as much (or more) from the people you meet as you will from the content.

Check to see if there are Web Analytics Wednesdays in your area and attend those. Here’s a tip: if there is not a WAW schedule on the calendar, click on the “Global Event Locations” link to bring up a word cloud of locations that includes historical events. If your city is listed, click on it and contact the organizer(s) via email about any plans for upcoming events (offering to help with the planning is a great way to get a response!). WAWs are open to anyone who has an interest in digital analytics. Don’t worry that you shouldn’t attend because you’re not an experienced analyst. Everyone is welcome, and it’s a great way to make local contacts in the field.

And, Finally, Some Words of Wisdom from the Wise

The information and resources above are intended to truly be “how to get started” material. They’re inherently tactical and are geared towards getting a foot in the door and building some basic skills. It’s worth a read of two blog posts from two very highly regarded and successful digital analysts:

This List Is Incomplete

I consciously tried to make this post succinct and tactical. And it still got to be pretty long. AND it’s an incomplete list. If you’re an experienced analyst with ideas as to what is missing, or if you’re a newer analyst who has found great resources that aren’t listed here, please add the suggestions as a comment!

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  1. Good call, Rudi! And, the link: Honestly, it can be a little hit or miss for someone who is just trying to get started, I think, as it can often have specialized vendors who presume (rightly) a core set of knowledge of basic tools. But, it’s definitely worth getting into a habit of listening!

  2. Thanks, Jonghee!

    CJ — good add. In my list of how my career evolved into digital analytics, the webanalytics Yahoo! group was somewhere I spent a lot of time (and made some great contacts) in the pre-Twitter / fewer blogs days. I should have included that. Thanks!

  3. Pingback Looking for a change of #measure scenery?

  4. Pingback Looking for a change of #measure scenery?

  5. I enjoyed reading this article. On my analytics learning journey I have been reading books, blogs (I use Zite too! <3), listening to podcasts and watching videos (coursera, edx, udemy) …but I (I am a teacher after all;)) understand that there is a lot to learn through DOING.

    ^Reminds me about how everyone says that whatever they learned about their field, they didn't learn in college (I still heart higher education, don't get me wrong).

    So after reading this article I signed up for a project on the Analysis Exchange program. I signed up a few days ago but I was feeling unsure because I know nothing! I feel so much better now. I hope I match the org I signed up for and I have a knowledgable and kind mentor.


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