Tim Ebner is communications director and press secretary at the American Forest & Paper Association in Washington, DC. He is a member of ASAE’s Communication Professionals Advisory Council and a former Associations Now senior editor.
Your website gives key stakeholders a doorway to information and resources—all while collecting valuable data about how they behave online. When used correctly, web analytics can provide insights into what your site visitors need from your association.
There's one piece of data that Beth Arritt, director of marketing at the American Association of Airport Executives, checks every day: her conversion rate for conference registration.
Last March, with less than two months to go before AAAE's Annual Conference, registrations were running about 25 percent ahead of where they were in 2016—representing an additional $15,000 in revenue—due in large part to a new integrated-data analytics and marketing strategy.
In 2015, AAAE synced its content management system and database to its email platform. It took about a year to integrate the two systems, but now the organization has a 360-degree view into data analytics, which helps AAAE turn would-be conference attendees into participants.
"We set parameters on our data analytics that say, flag anyone who visits our conference site and clicks on five pages or more in a single session but did not click 'register,'" Arritt says. "To us this says, clearly you were interested but left for some reason."
This type of tracking is akin to an online retailer's monitoring of an abandoned shopping cart. After five unique clicks on the site, AAAE starts an automated email campaign with the user, delivering four emails in 20 days. Those communications highlight the conference's value, benefits, and key learning opportunities. One of the messages even provides a justification letter that the prospective attendee can present to his or her employer.
"It's been fantastic to be able to see positive results," Arritt says. "We are so member-driven and member-focused that to be able to help members as they consider our conference, it's kind of awesome. We're essentially giving them exactly what they need, when they need it."
Web analytics can tell you a lot about what a user wants and when. But data analytics can be complicated, especially for associations with limited resources. Still, even associations that don't have a data analyst or team to crunch the numbers can grow and evolve their digital engagement strategy.
Step one, says Dave Lewan, vice president of public sector operations at the data analytics firm ForeSee, is a shift in thinking about your site visitors.
"When we talk about website analytics, there's an inherent customer experience that really becomes the big differentiator today," Lewan says. "Associations need to start thinking of all site visitors as customers, and in doing so they need to provide the best possible experience."
That sort of mindset is at work inside the American Occupational Therapy Association. Juan Sanchez, AOTA's director of information technology, has been working with staff and a digital marketing and web design agency to streamline the digital experience. AOTA is a case study in how an association with a relatively small staff can begin to get a better grip on its web analytics, leading to larger operational and organizational changes.
Stephanie Yamkovenko, AOTA's digital editor, says web data led to a better publishing strategy.
For AOTA, a better understanding of web data led to a change in digital publishing strategy. Like many medical associations, AOTA publishes a lot of whitepapers, reports, and research, much of them posted online in PDF form. But Sanchez and his colleague Stephanie Yamkovenko, AOTA's digital editor, noticed a trend in user behaviors that caused them to think twice about the default file type.
"On average, we have about 45 percent of our site visitors coming to us from a mobile device," Yamkovenko says. "Those users can easily scroll up and down to read an article, but they aren't used to scrolling left or right, which meant the PDF was basically unreadable." Today, AOTA publishes articles and reports in more mobile-friendly formats.
"Most of our members, because they work in healthcare, are not at a desktop computer all day, so we need to make sure that we are reaching them on their mobile device," Yamkovenko says. "We have to be thinking about their needs first."
Analytics aren't limited to compiling data in silos: AOTA uses Google Analytics to track site users as they move across its various digital properties to reveal bigger trends in site engagement. It's a tool that can help attribute clicks back to referral sources.
"We use traffic referrals and click-throughs as key indicators," Sanchez says. "The user might have originated from an email newsletter, then landed on a webpage, then purchased something on our e-commerce site. In that case, we can show the path of the purchaser and attribute those dollars directly to the newsletter."
You can put out content based off the analytics and make a relatively big impact, even if you have limited resources.—Juan Sanchez, director of information technology, AOTA
Sanchez says AOTA is continuing to evolve and learn from its web data. The association now has a dedicated day-to-day team that tracks analytics and analyzes audience segments, to the point where they can account for clicks or revenue coming from something as small as a Facebook post.
While focusing on web data can help you improve your digital customer experience, the same analytics tools can also show you how to attract new users to your site, including nonmembers.
AOTA uses web analytics to inform decisions on marketing and advertising, particularly when targeting potential new site users via Google AdWords campaigns. One example: students who are thinking of applying to occupational therapy schools.
"If someone does a Google search for 'occupational therapy schools,' they will immediately find our accreditation list and links to related articles on school and career resources," Sanchez says.
Many associations are using site analytics to anticipate user behaviors. Knowing what a user may be inclined to do can enable organic and paid outreach to specified groups. Such "microtargeting" is a powerful tool for advocacy.
"With microtargeting, you are trying to reach the right individual or voter based off some collection of commercially available or known data," says Sara Fagen, a public affairs specialist and partner at DDC who works with associations on call-to-action campaigns. "It's the data that can spark the real action."
Fagen says Google AdWords is a great place for associations to start. Often, stakeholder groups will find an organization through search-term queries. By microtargeting messages to a few audiences, an association can begin to drive clicks and, ultimately, engagement.
But microtargeting needs to be strategic and limited, Sanchez warns, citing the risk of the "creepiness factor." While one person might view an email reminder about an abandoned shopping cart as helpful, another might see "big brother" watching over his or her personal shopping habits. AOTA is in the process of revamping its e-commerce site, but Sanchez says it's not ready to use an abandoned-cart notification or similar tactics.
One reason for AOTA's early success with analytics was that its leadership team had adopted a culture of data-driven decision making. And that led to opening the door to data for staff at all levels.
Sanchez says that turning your staff into "data evangelists, or true believers of web analytics," means making sure they're able to easily access dashboards and data visualizations that show data in real time.
Data is displayed throughout the building in common areas and hallways. "Right now we are in our conference season, so we have screens that show our conference registration rates and how they've grown," Sanchez says. "People are naturally attracted to glowing screens, and staff can see the data in real time as they get their coffee."
Meanwhile, AOTA has deployed a small, dedicated team of data evangelists who help their colleagues in various departments soak up data analytics. Yamkovenko leads a cross-departmental content development team that ensures messages reach and engage the right site visitors. The team also developed a metric called "return on time investment," which helps staff prioritize projects based on the amount of effort and impact it drives.
"You don't have to focus your attention on all content efforts," Sanchez says. "You can put out content based off the analytics and make a relatively big impact, even if you have limited resources."
In the months ahead, AOTA plans to host internal brown-bag lunches that teach the value of web analytics and show how data can be applied to the work staff does every day. In most associations, marketing and advocacy teams are likely to be early adopters, Sanchez says, but in time, an entire organization can learn to make data a priority.
"Associations can be really successful if they make data open and available to their staff," he says. "There should never be a gatekeeper, because data really has the potential to be a catalyst for so many new ideas and changes."