Buy or build your website analytics?

Buy versus build: website analytics projects in professional services firms

There’s an increasing push to show data to support market initiatives – and law firms’ or accounting practices’ largest source of data is actually customers and prospects interacting with their website’s articles, practice group profiles, and fee-earners.

As in the 1980s, when firms were tinkering with software development around early wordprocessing packages, the question is whether this website analytics work is best done by professional services firms inhouse or bought off-the-shelf and/or customised.

In this article we look at what’s involved in building a good analytics platform (to see one in action watch this webinar).

Staffing up for website analytics projects

Data analyst salaries run in Australia at about $A90k and in the US at $78k. To that you can add around 30% on-costs related to health benefits, superannuation and other workplace entitlements before you start talking about software or equipment.

If you plan to hire, also consider if the person managing the data analyst knows something about web analytics. Our experience of data analyst hires in law firms is that you may need a succession plan – data analyst tenure in law firms tends to be relatively short as these roles may not match their experience or interests to the extent it does in ecommerce operations.

You can also look to develop an internal resource by bringing on someone from marketing or the IT department. In this situation you will be looking for someone who has or can develop:

Photo by Dmitry Baranovskiy
  • javascript skills
  • regular expression capabilities
  • a full understanding of metrics like unique pageviews or average time on page and their particular pros and cons
  • marketing experience
  • database skills
  • software development skills
  • expertise in the reporting software platform chosen
  • an understanding of the opportunities that good analytics affords

If you have to go the internal development route (see discussion below) we recommending starting with someone from a marketing background as well as some technical skills as they at least know the direction they want to head as they try to turn your data into insights you can use. Good analytics shouldn’t just tell you what is happening on your website, it should tell you what is happening in the non-digital world too.

Even with someone who doesn’t need to develop the skills there are significant time commitments. These arise because you will have to:

  • identify and implement data gathering of high value activities (not gathered by default in the analytics package most firms use, Google Analytics) and then wait months or longer for them to accumulate for analysis purposes (only about 6% of activity on the website in our benchmarking)
  • keep the system updated by making changes to tracking whenever the website changes (software development companies usually attribute around 80% of costs to maintenance and 20% to development).

Getting a good analytics reporting platform

While most firms have free Google Analytics tracking installed, to make your analytics both easy and have it deliver insights you can actually use, you will need a visualisation platform.

One possibility is dashboards in Google Data Studio but as things currently stand it has a number of significant limitations alongside its learning curve. For example:

  • it supports a limited number of data sources versus other solutions
  • does not scale well to different sized screens
  • doesn’t have a mobile version
  • has limited visual indicators like gauge charts that make reporting quickly and easily accessible
  • doesn’t support a custom style sheet across multiple dashboards
  • doesn’t support collaboration like user comments on charts / explanatory text
  • doesn’t support fine-grained permissions (some data is quite sensitive for professional services firms) or give you the ability to easily manage permissions around individual staff changes (the average tenure of marketing roles in professional services firms being as low as 18 months)

Enriching data

Some of the most important uses of website analytics which you want to bring together in your reporting also come from data which is not present in native Google Analytics at all. For example:

  1. being able to identify companies that are anonymously visiting your law firm or accountancy firm website (i.e. not from an email link that you sent them)
  2. being able to see how your firm performs against other professional services firms in your jurisdiction on key metrics (benchmarking)
  3. being able to record high value activities that are occurring on your website which are not tracked in default Google Analytics (such as a website visitor actually contacting one of your fee-earners)

With high value activities, you will need to develop the right hierarchy, and a good naming structure so that when it comes to actually reporting on them they are understandable and extensible without your data store turning into a mess.

So for example if you want to modify Google Analytics to track people clicking on email addresses on the website, not all classes of emails will be the same (‘contact us’ versus ‘John Smith’ for example) and you need to be able to both distinguish this and make it easy to understand in the reporting being provided to stakeholders.

Buy versus build: our recommendation

If you understand both the scale of the website analytics opportunity for professional services firms and what’s involved in the implementation our view is that most firms are better off having their website analytics professionally implemented – much as these days they wouldn’t build their own website or try and train someone up internally to do it.

This opinion is based on our real-world experience of the aftermath of build-your-own analytics implementations which:

  • are not on a good platform
  • do not enrich the data at all, miss a lot of the key high value activities for professional services firms, or enrich it but with poor taxonomies so it never gets used
  • do not make sure the data is clean (garbage in, garbage out)
  • produce only basic data (total visitors, share of visits from search, etc)
  • produce no reporting at all (the firm has Google Analytics but doesn’t know how to interpret or report on it)
  • were built by someone who then left (succession issues)
  • were built without a good understanding of the opportunities around analytics

Of course if you do buy an analytics solution you know what you’re getting in advance and pay only for delivery, and assuming your vendor is using a framework such as Google Analytics to store it, you aren’t locked in.

And the right platform will help upskill your internal staff and highlight issues to which they can then apply their knowledge of your organisation to dig deeper.

‘My website developer says they also do reporting’: a final note

If you work in an accountancy firm you’re likely to be familiar with the concept of audits or having an independent view of key figures. So don’t have your website developer do your analytics.

There are often conflicts of interest – most obviously in digital agencies which carry out pay-per-click campaigns for firms – but also in less obvious cases where your developer wants you to upgrade your site or conversely glosses over issues with the site they’ve just revamped for you.

Equally, analytics has become a significant specialism in its own right in the last few years: your developer is usually unlikely to be across best practice in both website development and website analytics; just like you wouldn’t expect a family lawyer to handle an intellectual property issue for you.