I got an email the other day with this simple question: "How do break into the world of web analytics?"
Actually I get that question almost every single day. :)
The interest is not surprising. There is a ton of excitement about web analytics. Companies are starting to think innovatively about the web (no more unintelligent banner ads or digital "crimes against humanity"), and they are starting to understand the power of data to delight customers and drive accountability.
I've said repeatedly that if I look into the next xx number of years Analyst is essentially a recession-proof job. In our field specifically, good Web Analysts will continue to be in high demand, for any conceivable time period. [Therein you see one way to "break into" analytics, or anything really, you have to be good!]
If you want to "break in," or if you've already "broken in" (welcome!) but desire greater awesomeness, here are some tips on taking a step back, thinking things through, and being strategic about your approach. . . .
#1: Figure out the optimal career path for you.
Why before what. Always.
It only takes two minutes of talking to most current "Web Analysts" in the world to realize that they actually are:
B. Web Analytics Data Reporters (99% of their effort is taking in requests and working with above folks and simply regurgitating data out)
Before I go on I must stress that both are much required roles, without A you've got nothing, and without B most corporations would not function (as they believe sending data out is all it takes to be successful).
But neither role is that of a Web Analyst.
Having been around the block several times in several roles on all sides (practitioner, consultant, team leader, vendor, advisor) I've distilled the web analytics field into four distinct roles. Each requires very different sets of skills, delivers very different career paths, and, of course, leads to different salaries.
So first really, really, really understand what your actual skills are, and then, second, identify which of of the four career paths (at least initially) is the right fit. If you do, there will be happiness (forget money, at least initially, and focus on happiness). If you do, there will be progress in your career as you start (and you can always evolve).
Read this post and the step by step process: Analytics Career Advice: Job Titles, Salaries, Technical & Business Roles. For each path it outlines Career Prospects, $$$ (Salary) Prospects, Long Term Job Title Growth.
On page 392 of Web Analytics 2.0 you'll also find this summary of the four paths, in a simple 2×2 matrix:
The numbers are there to give you a point in time perspective. They are there mostly to give you contextual guidance (between paths).
1. The best path for you is the one you have the aptitude for.
2. Think of the four paths not as one point in the matrix, but rather as a dominant role with some (small) shades of the other.
3. If you don't figure out what your best (dominant) path is, you'll be very miserable.
4. Only one of the four dominant paths is that of a Web Analyst. The other roles are important in the world of web analytics, but they are not Web Analyst roles.
5. You can evolve over time. Your choice is for the time horizon just in front of you – the next couple years.
So what is your dominant quest? Individual contributor? Team lead? And which facet are you going to focus on? Business? Technical?
Read the analytics career paths post (or a much updated version on Page 386 of Web Analytics 2.0) and figure it out, before you do everything below. And trust me when I say this. the process is not easy. Especially for people who won't be honest with themselves. But of course that is not you!
[Update: This blog post is overwhelmingly for those who want to become Analysts ("Business" in the matrix above). Hence I am a little biased in emphasizing analytical skills development and the acquiring of business problem solving skills from practical work. Technical skills are important, perhaps I am under-emphasizing them here. Please see Alex's dissenting view (to mine), it is important and please take it into consideration in your evolution.]
#2: Pick Your First Two Web Analytics Tools.
It might seem silly to close in this early on a tool, after all you barely figured out what your skills are. Sadly tools are so dominating in our world as the determining factor for so many things that it is wise to make this choice up front (for the first x amount of time).
For example, if you choose Omniture or WebTrends or ICoreNica as your tools. then your choice to get smart about them and smart about your career path will lead through training and certification via those companies. You can't have free versions or free education or books on the subject matter. Let me hasten to add that these are wonderful tools; they are used by some of the biggest companies in the world who hire tons of people. So it is not features etc., it is how you are going to get your first job.
If you choose Yahoo! Analytics or Google Analytics or Piwik then you are a little better off in terms of your starting path. The tools are free. Anyone can download and implement them anywhere. There are books galore. There are very cheap trainings (YWA and GA) all the time if you desire. There are free sources like Conversion University (video, audio, more). So you can start on your own, tomorrow morning, get very good at the tool if you want to. DIY.
Important: Neither one of these paths is ultimately better or worse. Neither one of these sets of tools is superior or inferior, no matter what some silly vendors and some sillier consultants will tell you. Neither one will mean you will ultimately win or lose (see rest of this post). They are just different.
When you are starting out just make an explicit choice, simply because it will dictate your immediate next steps and, I cannot stress this enough, f o c u s!
I said two tools. Did you notice that?
Every Analysis Ninja I know (not implementers, not data providers, not excel cross data store integrators – all good jobs) is very, very good at Multiplicity (answering a complex set of digital business questions using the best – often non-clickstream source).
So in addition to becoming good at Omniture, Google Analytics, Baidu Analytics, pick one other tool from the Experimentation, Voice of Customer, Competitive Intelligence buckets of Web Analytics 2.0.
This will ensure two things:
1. It will be a very, very strong signal to your future employers that you are not one of the numerous one-trick-clickstream ponies out there. You get the world we live in, you understand sophistication.
2. You will start learning all of the awesome things I said above your skills / experience should signal!
If you can't make up your mind here are the simplest tools to pick up, primarily because they are easy to get into (and provide a lifetime of sophistication development). Surveys: KissInsights or 4Q Survey. Competitive Intelligence: Compete, Google Insights for Search, DoubleClick Ad Planner, Trends for Websites.
If you can't make up your mind do KissInsights and Insights for Search. It will teach you how complicated, hard, beautiful, datagasmic the world we live in is.
Pick two starting points. Start on day one knowing you are going to be a Ninja.
#3: Get Educated.
Initial career path choice? Check. Initial tools focus? Check. Getting smart about it? Let's go!
It might be old fashioned but I like starting with a book. Notice we are on #3 and I have not yet asked you to install anything! :)
Buy two books.
Get an overall web analytics strategy book, one that covers the ecosystem, the mental models to apply, key analytics techniques. essentially a "how to think" book. I would recommend my book Web Analytics 2.0 (in 5 languages!) or Steve's Cult of Analytics or Gemma's and Tristan's El Arte de Medir or Juan's Meta Analytics. [Important: If you have other suggestions that are current, please add them in comments. Thanks.]
Get a really good tool book. For Yahoo! Analytics please get Dennis's book. For Google Analytics get Brian's book or Justin's book or Timo's book (in German). While some things (like UI) about tools change over time, these books are your best, structured bet at learning about the tool and the power at your disposal.
There is no doubt that the most current knowledge exists in blogs (yes, yes I know that the fad of the month is Twitter & Facebook, for someone starting to build a career the most current distractions exist there :)).
Pick two blogs.
Pick one practitioner blog, someone who can teach you about web analytics (thinking, approaches, pure practitioner education, complete lack of generic stuff). There is a very long list in the blogroll on the right navigation of this page (and every blog post on this blog).
Pick the blog of the vendor you've chosen previously. Every decent vendor in the world has an active blog teaching their practitioners how to use their tool. My favorite is the Omniture blog. It is the prefect balance between pimping (a little bit) and teaching (a lot).
A list of my personal favorite top ten blogs are also in the right nav of this page (in the blogroll section). You'll notice they are a mix of Marketing, Design, Analytics, Critical Thinking blogs. A clue as to what I personally think it takes to be successful.
Two blogs are not overwhelming. Really read both that you pick. Stay hungry, stay foolish.
If you want to jumpstart your education (and this is in addition to the above, not a replacement) consider taking a course with Market Motive (Disclosure: I'm the co-founder), University of British Columbia or the University of California at Irvine or Universite Laval. If you chose GA earlier, consider taking the Google Analytics IQ certification exam (the educational materials are free, the exam is $50).
My experience is that structured courses teach you how to think. None of them (okay except GA IQ) teach you how to use the tool. When you are starting out that is so important. Once you get sucked into s.vars and e.props and events and all that crap it is very hard to get your head to rise to a strategic thinking level, business analysis level, the things that really matter level. So if you can afford it, take a certification course.
You don't want to spend two years on this (look for fresh content); find the fastest three or six month jump start (because you'll still have to do the above and below).
University / College Level Courses:
For a career in Web Analytics you don't need a special degree (at least not yet). I've hired people with no college degrees, forest rangers, financial analysts, database programmers (as long as they have an analytical bent of mind). But if you don't have any exposure to Statistics then I strongly encourage taking an evening / part time course in Statistics 101. If an institution near you provides a course in quantitative or qualitative analytics (even traditional analytics such as direct marketing or market research) then that is also well worth the investment. It will absolutely jump start your career.
The trick will be how to make that massive investment as you'll have to read your two books (one time at least!) and two blogs (continuously) and take one course. So here's my recommendation: Read the web analytics strategic book while taking the three/six month course. Start reading the tool book when you start using the tool. Start reading the blogs when you get to the below.
#4: Play In The Real World.
This is where everyone messes up. People show up at interviews having just used Omniture with no experience of any other Web Analytics 2.0 tools. They show up with limited theoretical knowledge or just the UBC degree.
Ain't gonna happen. The job. Won't happen.
You can learn everything there is to learn about fishing in a book, or at a University. You won't actually get any good unless you grab that pole and sit for hours on end on the water.
A free very good tool is available for every element of Web Analytics 2.0. Go get a site. Your mom's. Favorite charity's. Your friend's business. Your spouse's sibling on whom you have a crush. Or. . . start your own!
The specific details on how to really, really practice (without permission from your boss or your company or Guru) are outlined here: Web Analytics Career Advice: Play In The Real World!
It turns out the greatest thing you can pour into becoming awesome is your sweat.
And don't stop at website data analysis. Remember you want to be a Ninja because they earn more money, get any job they want and are 900% happier than the average human.
I love Romy Misra's approach. She is taking publicly available data, (bravely) publicly doing analysis using tools like Many Eyes and publishing her results on her blog! Here are two examples:
Impressive is it not? It takes effort. It takes love. It takes a deep desire to get good. And yes you'll get something wrong (Romy's example), but can you think of a better way to learn?
And Romy, and everyone similarly brave, is not just writing a blog. . . she is creating the greatest resume a person can create. Think about that.
Don't wait for your boss to allocate budget. Don't wait for permission from your mom. Don't wait to sign up for a project. Don't wait to be picked. Don't wait. Go and play in the real world. Now. And if you want to stay good, do so constantly.
#5: Find Your First Web Analytics Job.
By now you've probably spent three to six months investing in yourself. In the latter part of that journey you've likely practiced using the Romy method or the Avinash method or the iamawesomesoicreatedmyown method. You have a publicly available portfolio of your work, no matter how small or basic.
Time to find a job.
But don't top there, try less obvious options. . .
Look in local locations. Washington Post Jobs in DC (11 jobs). You have a newspaper in town right?
Look at non-profit entities (who have paid jobs). For example my favorite idealist.org (272 jobs – some tangential. 252 North America, 11 Europe, 6 Asia, 1 Africa, 2 LatAM).
With non-profits you also have an option of just writing to them and offering to implement Yahoo! or Google Analytics and helping them with insights. If you are interested post / read NTEN Affinity Groups.
And don't forget the obvious hidden places. . .
Look at web analytics consulting companies. There are so many of them, literally exploding with growth, and looking for even junior people (especially those with a "public resume") willing to work hard. Reach out to them.
I am not going to mention friends and family as your best network to get jobs. You know that already.
I am not even going to mention company websites. You know where to check them. With companies the challenge is that they often ask for pink elephants, but don't let that deter you. Ensure that on top of the resume you send them is a link to your above mentioned "public resume." It is a great way to show your actual hard work and give the company some room to shift from looking for pink elephants to an enterprising person with a visible track record of hard work and learning investment. If you don't have a "public resume" then you might be in less luck than optimal.
Lots of places, lots of jobs. But. . .
Be open to contractor to permanent positions. Just don't pick a slimy placement companies whose core earnings come from having you stay a temp. I have done contractor to permanent (both in taking a job myself and hiring Analysts) and it has worked out well.
Be open to starting below where you were before (if you are switching careers). My first web analytics job came with a downgrade in job title (ouch!) and $14,000 less in annual earnings (ouch! ouch!). I was confident it was the right move. Joined. Worked hard. Both things got fixed astonishingly quickly.
Be open to the type of company you'll work for. For profit, non-profit, universities, Fortune 10,000, Forbes 10, B2B, B2C, A2Z etc., etc.
Bottom-line: Look everywhere, but mostly focus on the non-obvious, and even for someone starting out there is a job waiting in Web Analytics.
That is it. Five simple steps to "breaking into" web analytics.
The hardest are developing a true Web Analytics 2.0 skill-set / mental model, and creating your "public resume" (body of work).
You'll be busy with that for most of your first xx months. So before I close this post, here is a bonus item. . .
Bonus: #6: Avoid Massively Over-Rated Activities.
Your time is precious. I feel obligated to spill two "secrets" that you might benefit from as you plan your career. Here are two over-rated investments:
1. Spending four hours a day tweeting and getting into loads of "conversations."
Prioritize your time. And remember, I am going to Bing you before I meet you for the interview. It will find your Twitter feed. I will expect massively more from you if you are invited (and if your Twitter / Facebook feed was sub-optimal you are not getting the call – benefits of a social world!).
If you have time, at least early in your career, invest in yourself education and evolution (see steps above).
If you have four hours a day to tweet, take three and a half hours and invest in your long term personal and professional goals.
2. Attending five analytics conferences a year.
Maybe one or two, regardless of who is paying (you or employer). And if you've attend a conference this year, don't go to the same one two years in a row. The content simply does not change enough.
Also, think Web Analytics 2.0, think breadth. Try other conferences: Search, Affiliate, Direct Marketing, etc. Seek analytics sessions, broaden your mind rather than let it rot by staying in a silo.
I am sure there are others I'm forgetting. If history is any guide you are going to oblige me by sharing them via comments below!
I want to close by welcoming your interest in a career in Web Analytics. I am immensely excited at its potential to transform companies and lives. It is a rewarding career from any perspective: work, salary, satisfaction. It does take a special kind of person who is willing not just to do the work, but love the work and love the special joy that comes from a day's hard work. All you need is the will.
Ok it's your turn now.
If you are new to the field. . . did you find this five step guide to be helpful? Was there a step you were not aware of? Are you executing your entry plan as outlined in the above priority order? Are you trying something else? What did I miss?
If you are an old hand. . . what advice would you share with someone who is just starting out? Which step above do you think is most important? What surprised you about your own career? What did I miss above in my guide?
Please share via comments. Thanks.