The Pointlessness of Real-Time Analytics

Real Time AnalyticsIt is easy to get seduced by real-time numbers. When you work on a website, all the visitors are remote, often relegated to numbers in a spreadsheet or weekly report. So real time analytics can seem like the perfect answer – you can see what visitors are doing RIGHT NOW on your website.

Look, there they are, in this specific millisecond… the region they are in, the device they are using, the page they are on, where they came from and more. It attracts, it engages, it hypnotises.

Pause… wait a minute… rewind! Before we get drawn in, we need to better understand the value.

The Seduction of Realtime Dashboards

Even before it was introduced into Google Analytics, a client of ours used a very well known service in this sector called ‘Chartbeat‘. It was easy to install, cheap to run, and we quickly got it all set up. And it works.

You feel like your at the wheel of your car, with little ‘speedometer’ tickers swing left and right. Greens lights for good. Red for bad. Numbers flicking up and down and a reel of pages ticking over as people go back and forth. A graph meanders across the screen titled ‘Engagement’. It’s appeals to the gadgeteer, control freak and analytic all at once.

It took a few months of regular visits to our dashboard for someone to introduce the smelling salts. It started with a very simple question in an internal meeting in our office: ‘how do you use this data in your marketing decision making?’

We looked around at each other. Anyone? Does anyone use this data?

The Dawning Realtime Measurement Realisation

So, rather than blame the tool, the first thing to do was to question ourselves – perhaps we had not fully understood how they were to be used. Maybe we had not spent enough time working out where realtime data is best applied.

We took a few weeks to attempt to tackle this apparent paradox. Met again and came to the simple conclusion that real time tracking is just not very useful for 99% of websites.

Sure, it is fun to watch, and perhaps for bigger publishers who can afford to have staff employed to stare at screens all the time, perhaps then there is a need for realtime. But we could not come up with a single client who would be able to be more efficient or effective using realtime tracking. In the end, we came to these conclusions:

For clients who have low traffic websites, the results from real-time analytics probably have the most value as every visitor matters, but increasing your traffic is a greater priority than closely watching the few actually visiting your website.

For clients with medium traffic websites, analytics and metrics are crucial, but you also need to use your resources wisely. Use reports and analytics to make decisions based on what you read from your website traffic – but don’t use real-time. Weekly report should be enough for you and campaign reports based on email and marketing activity.

For high traffic websites, the only reason why you’d use realtime is if you have a means of responding to what is seen. This means human resources. You can get everything you want out of other forms of tracking, but the only area where you may lose out is in the responsiveness, but only if that matters to your business model. For most, it doesn’t.

It just underlines one of the important ‘learnings’ of online: the activity of one site visitor does not really matter to you, you need to look at the trends. Any business that used individual feedback from every prospect would not only have its hands full, but also end up making very bad decisions.

And, in that light, real-time analytics may make you feel like Captain Kirk, but won’t deliver for your particular Starship Enterprise.