The Insights of ‘Big Brother’

The Insights of ‘Big Brother’

How Analytics Can Make You a Better Publisher

When a person interacts with a computer—whether browsing the web or using an ATM—the computer typically maintains some kind of record of the actions the person took with the system. This is sometimes referred to as “data exhaust”: information that is the natural byproduct of the human-machine interaction.

Sometimes the analysis of this data exhaust reveals behavioral patterns through a process known as “user analytics.” These analytics can provide insights into how people behave, as individuals or in aggregate, and by implication how they think and feel. Businesses can use these insights, and consequently increase their effectiveness in the marketplace by being responsive to the pulse of the customer.

Anyone who has built and launched a web site or web service has likely worked with analytics when looking over reports of page requests, all in the hope of finding out something about the customer or end user. Reports from systems such as Webtrends or Google Analytics can help answer such questions as:

  • How many people came to the site and how did they get here?
  • What did users do once they got here? How long did they spend? What were their navigational paths?
  • Did the user get lost? Bored?
  • Did the site “succeed” in closing a sale, getting a lead or delivering a service? If not, at what point did the user abandon the desired process?

User analytics can sometimes answer such questions and help guide the revision of the site, the marketing of the site, or the underlying value proposition of the business.

This is not new to publishers. Market data from the BISGs and the Forresters of the world, as well as reporting from their own distribution channels and retailers, are like catnip to publishers who wish to ferret out insights about the market and in turn calibrate marketing and editorial strategy.

Digital publishing takes user analytics to the next level. The product is delivered to the customer and used by the customer on a computer of one kind or another: reader, tablet, phone, laptop, etc. User analytics can not only gain insight into the behavioral events leading up to the sale, but also after  the sale when the customer is reading or interacting with the product or service. The publisher can, in a sense, “watch the reader”. While this is an admittedly Orwellian notion, it is no less powerful. User analytics generated from the actual reading or usage of the product may indicate something about how the offering is received by the customer, what is of value, enjoyed or found useful. This may drive a wide array of decisions, from product design to acquisition strategy.  Big Brother aside, leveraging user analytics from digital delivery is an essential tool toward maximizing success in the digital marketplace.

One exciting area is how educational publishers, such as Maureen McMahon of Kaplan Publishing, see user analytics as a tool to shed light on learning styles and pedagogical efficacy. These insights can lead toward more effective, evidence-based educational offerings.

There are some challenges publishers must overcome in order to get a robust set of analytics data. First, in the current e-book paradigm, reading often takes place offline. Unless the reader is connected to a cloud-based delivery system, they are reading an e-book (or similar format) that they downloaded and are now using offline. This is a bit different from the web site analytics paradigm in which the server records every action in real time. There are workarounds however: The offline reading device can and does collect data in an offline mode. Subsequently however, the data must be uploaded and collected by a server when the device next connects.

A second challenge is more significant. Distribution intermediaries and market platforms often treat user data as proprietary and do not release it to the publisher. Amazon and Apple are especially notorious for not giving publishers access to the full set of analytics data from their own customers. The rationale given is that these distribution “partners” are protecting the privacy of the consumer, a somewhat dubious claim since it is the publisher’s customer to begin with. However, since intermediaries like Amazon and Apple often control both the platform and specific marketplaces (they are holding the trump cards), the publisher is forced to accept whatever data the intermediary chooses to give them. This is a critical battle in determining how the digital landscape settles. At the end of the day, those organizations that have rich sets of analytics data and the ability to use them will be able to maximize their effectiveness in the marketplace.

Those challenges aside, there are some initial questions publishing organizations should explore if they wish to develop the capability to make business decisions based upon user analytics:

1. What questions do you want the data to answer for you? What insights do you seek? If you don’t know what you are looking for the data can’t tell you the answer.

2. What behaviors or points of data need to be recorded? Digital systems can record and save everything. But everything is too much. You need to consider what needs to be in the logged data so you are not drowning in too much data.

3. What report formats and automated analysis need to be done to the data logged? In other words, how do you go from the data collected to the answers you seek? As in the case of data collection, a report with too much detail is often as useless as one with too little.

4. What actions will be taken strategically or operationally when you get the answers you seek? If the insights are not acted upon, then the whole initiative is largely academic.

To a large degree, effective digital publishing consists of a dialog between reader and publisher. Publishers bring individuals into dynamic digital marketing and product experiences. When the individual engages in these digital experiences, data is generated from which the publisher gains insight to make ever more compelling experiences. And around and around it goes in a true virtuous cycle.

Creating effective analytics capabilities associated with digital media is challenging because it is both complex and new. But it also is one of the most exciting aspects of being a publisher today.