The Numbers Speak for Themselves

How associations are using analytics to optimize their websites and engage members.

While web analytics has been around nearly as long as the web itself, the latest crop of software upgrades in this space makes it easier than ever to precisely study what's working best on your website and what's in sore need of change.

Essentially, web-analytics software enables an association to discern how every visitor to its website interacts with that site and then recommends changes based on those interactions to ensure the website is easier to use, and ultimately, completely optimized for marketing and selling.

In fact, these tools are so perceptive and helpful that you'd be hard pressed to find a major association site that does not use some form of web analytics.

Associations that are currently using the software are seeing results in the form of increased member engagement and longer website visits. And with web-analytics technology getting better each day, these benefits will only increase if associations take advantage.

Web Analytics on a Shoestring Budget

Before investing a large amount of money in any web-analytics solution, associations will probably want to give web analytics a try with something a little more budget friendly. Google Analytics is a free service that is fairly sophisticated for being no cost.

In its report "The Forrester Wave: Web Analytics Q3 2009," Forrester Research singled out Google Analytics as a strong, second-tier product. The reason for the recognition is the advantage Google Analytics has over all others: It gives away its analytics program absolutely free in an effort to encourage use of other Google fee-based, web-marketing products, such as Google AdWords.

"Google Analytics debuted in our 2007 web analytics evaluation as a contender among a pack of strong performers," says Carlton A. Doty, coauthor of the report.

"Since then, it has significantly enhanced its enterprise capabilities with numerous product roll-outs, such as the ability to create customer reports, perform advanced segmentation, and visualize data using an interface tool."

Google Analytics' most recent revamp also coincided with the release of a guidebook to help users get the most out of the program: Brian Clifton's Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics, Second Edition.

Ready, Set, Analyze

The Society for Human Resource Management is an example of an association using analytics to its advantage. SHRM recently leveraged its Google Analytics software to analyze a member login screen. Simple use of the analytics revealed that numerous current and prospective members were simply abandoning the page in frustration after a few moments of interaction.

"By making a few, minor design changes and rewriting some promotional copy, we were able to double the conversion rate on the login page," says Chad Houghton, SHRM's director, global business solutions.  "In other words, we sold twice as many memberships with those changes than we had with the previous site."

However, Houghton also says that once you have the numbers, you have to dig deep into them. "There is no doubt we have seen a clear line between investing in this effort and improving the business," he says. "The challenge for associations is to go beyond the standard metrics of page views and unique visitors. Association executives need to be asking themselves, ‘What is this telling us about our business?' and ‘What do we do to impact these numbers?' You wouldn't manage an association's budget by only looking at the top line, and you shouldn't manage your website that way either. This should be a core competency of your marketing staff as well as your web and technology staff."

Robert Miller, principal at AssociationCIO, an IT consulting firm for associations, says he recently helped a client with a "click-away" problem as well.

By studying Webtrends software reports, the association client was able to identify a specific and significant portion of web content that simply was not being viewed. "It is noteworthy that costs associated with site maintenance were reduced through the elimination of content that was statistically proven irrelevant," Miller says.

Daily Dose of Analytics

Like most technology strategies, the use of web analytics is not something you do once and then forget about. It has to be an ongoing and continuous process. The Association of Fundraising Professionals is a daily user of web-analytics software. Its most recent goal using Urchin Software from Google was to get information to visitors more quickly, using fewer clicks. The association wanted to encourage repeat visits to its site and engage in conversions, such as more membership signups, registrations for conferences, and subscribers to the association's e-newsletters.

As a result of its findings, the association has made a few tweaks to its site. "Design changes have been extremely successful," says Prabhash Shrestha, CAE, AFP's CIO. "We have been getting many notes from our members about [the] ease of getting to proper content. Our staffs and volunteers feel the same as well. And our latest member survey showed our website as one of the top three member benefits."

Wendy Sahli, manager of marketing and web services for the American Society of Plant Biologists, also uses Google Analytics regularly to improve ASPB's site. "For example, it can show us a trend in how much buzz our meeting is generating," Sahli says. "We compare those to the emails that announce new content to see what people are interested in the most. It gives us a good measure for interest in a topic, which then shows us which topics are most important to our membership."

The software has also proven invaluable in optimizing placement of web ads on the association site. "It helps us determine best placement areas that will get advertisers the largest opportunities," Sahli says. "It also helps us serve the ads in a way that targets the audience the supplier is interested in."

Simply put, web analytics makes it easy "for businesses to really get inside their customers' heads—either by analyzing macro trends, or by drilling deep into individual behavior," says John Squire, chief strategy officer for Coremetrics, a web-analytics software vendor.

Renato Cruz Sogueco, CIO at the Society of American Florists, agrees. "A great benefit in having staff monitor the analytics reports is that the process raises their awareness of what members want and don't want," Sogueco says. "The trends are spelled out in black and white, and it gives us the power to adjust accordingly. It also really forces us to make changes to our site small and large in reaction to real usage data."

Indeed, as too many associations learned the hard way in the early days of the internet, a website that often seems perfectly rendered and easy to navigate in the eyes of company creators can actually represent a major challenge to visitors.

In practice, web-analytics software packages solve this problem by enabling users to see and study the paths visitors are taking through the website, precisely determine where those visitors are having trouble, and then make necessary fixes.

Plus, the programs also enable associations to see which pages on the association website are most popular, which media on the website are most popular, and which search engines are sending the website the most traffic. In addition, they dig into myriad other insights that reveal the overall efficacy of a website's design, navigation, and performance.

More Web-Analytics Resources
  • For an overall look at the web-analytics market, you can check with with a number of market-research firms, including Forrester (, IDC (, and Gartner ( All regularly issue in-depth reports on the state of the web-analytics market.
  • For one of the most comprehensive looks at web analytics, check out CMS Watch (  The company is known for its intense, ongoing, in-depth scrutiny of the web-analytics market and offers continually updated reports on virtually all changes in the market.

The Next Steps in Analytics

While web analytics are already helping numerous associations determine what works best within their sites, the newest and up-and-coming versions of the software do a lot more.
Market-research firm Forrester Research assessed the dozens of web-analytics packages on the market. In "The Forrester Wave: Web Analytics Q3 2009," coauthor Carlton A. Doty took a close look at the offerings of the companies Forrester ranks as the top five: Coremetrics, Nedstat, Omniture, Unica, and Webtrends.

One of the trends Doty saw is the use of web-analytics software to measure interaction on social networking sites. These top-five vendors are starting to home in on helping companies and organizations analyze visitor interactions on the presences they maintain on Facebook. Coremetrics, for example, has created a special application to measure sales, orders, and other conversion events on an association's Facebook page.

"Given consumers' extensive adoption and deep engagement with Facebook, it is critical for marketers to have a clearly measurable understanding of how their customers are engaging on Facebook in the context of their total online presence," says Coremetrics' Squire.

Omniture has a similar Facebook app in development. Essentially, the new module will help associations automate the process of media buying as well as provide analytics on visitor interaction with an association's Facebook presence.

Webtrends is also taking part in the Facebook analytics apps race. The company's Facebook module can determine, among other metrics, if visitor interactions on Twitter ultimately drive visitors to an association's Facebook page. The app also goes on to verify if any sales or other interactions unfold once visitors get to the association's Facebook page from Twitter.

Meanwhile, besides beginning to develop a Facebook application, Omniture has also expanded its video-analytics module to include analysis of web videos being offered on websites optimized for smartphones and other web devices, including video that is embedded in mobile iPhone applications.

Associations are already seeing great results with the web-analytics tools they are currently using, whether it is increased member engagement or longer site visits. And with the software advancing almost every day, it is likely that those associations that continue diving into the statistics will have higher member-retention and recruitment rates. 

Joe Dysart is an internet speaker and business consultant based in New York City. Email: [email protected]