Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Analyzing Customer Data: Learn From Your Competitors

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Jason  Burby
Learn From Your Competitors
› › ›   Analyzing Customer Data

BY Jason Burby
August 30, 2005

As you've evolved in your understanding of Web analytics, you should've learned to focus on metrics based on your organizational goals; discovered how to monetize the opportunities you identify; and implemented A/B or multivariate tests to make improvements.

The trick now is to determine what you should test and how to formulate the best test. There have been many articles outlining the ways to create effective tests, but this is a high-level view of the approach we take with our clients:

  1. Identify opportunities.

  2. Monetize opportunities and prioritize based on greatest potential outcome on your business.

  3. Identify success metrics for the selected test.

  4. Define hypotheses (can have single or multiple hypotheses).

  5. Define strategy for test (based on hypotheses and success metrics).

  6. Create tests.

  7. Measure results.

  8. Tune or repeat process.

As we move through these steps, the area people often struggle with is how to create a strategy based on the hypothesis. There are a number of ways to do this. You can create your strategy in a vacuum; interview customers for information; look at your competitors' sites; or hire a smart agency and see if it can hit the mark. The best bet is to do the last three.

One of the most powerful approaches is to learn from your competitors. Be very careful if you're looking at a well-respected competitor and assume it's doing something better than you. You don't really know if it converts its visitors more effectively than you (no matter what that conversion may be). Understand what works on your competitors' sites. But when you call them and ask if you can put a tracking tag on their sites, they usually turn you down. For some reason, they aren't willing to send you log files, either.

Welcome to the world of competitive intelligence: comScore, Hitwise, Nielsen. Though each has different ways of collecting data, we'll just discuss one method. By creating a panel of opt-in members, they can track members' behaviors all over the Web. Through this sampling method, they're able to determine high-level traffic metrics; what other sites your visitors browse; where they went after leaving your site; visitor demographics, ;nd lots of other information. There are numerous ways to use this data.

One of the best ways is to collect competitive information with a view toward optimizing specific site pages or sections. By honing in on specific sections or pages of competitor sites, you can determine not only what you think is the best-performing page or process in your industry, but what which page converts visitors at the highest rate. That's the true measure of success, not just what looks good.

A number of months ago, we worked with a client that had modeled a page after a page on a competitor's site that was considered the best site in the industry. The client compared a page that wasn't performing well on its own site to the same page on the competitor's site and began to rework its page for relaunch. We recommended additional research and testing a series of pages. We began with an expert usability review of the existing page and came up with a number of things that could be done from a usability standpoint to improve the page.

We then had comScore compare the page in question to the highly regarded competitor's page, as well as others in the industry. Sure enough, we found the competitor's site the client initially modeled after wasn't the best-performing page in the industry. Our client's page actually outperformed the specific page of that highly regarded competitor. We used comScore's data to compare demographics on site visitors. They lined up pretty well. The data also combined the best-performing site in the industry with similar visitor demographics and revealed some best practices to use in the design of our test.

Competitive data wasn't the only thing we based the test on, but gut instinct wasn't the only thing, either. It took a solid combination of understanding behavioral data (analytics); attitudinal data (expert review and surveys); competitive intelligence (comScore data); and a solid understanding of the industry. This strategy lead to the creation of a series of tests for a greatly improved page that now rivals the top-performing page within that industry based on actual conversion.

Optimization isn't a one-time or every-now-and-then thing. Competitive data may not help you improve all your tests' effectiveness, but it can be a powerful tool when creating your testing strategy. Learn from your competitors' successes as well as your own mistakes!