Simo Ahava is a Senior Data Advocate at Reaktor and a Google Developer Expert for Google Analytics (2014-present). Simo has one of the most popular technical analytics blogs, covering a wide range of topics including Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager, digital marketing, SEO and more. We had a chance to interview Simo for his perspective on the current analytics industry, where it’s going and what organizations should focus around digital analytics.
1. Organizations should stop treating analytics as a project, stop treating it like something you buy off the shelf, and instead start thinking about how to devote the resources necessary to make it a holistic process in an organization.
2. The idea behind data agility is that you have these multi-disciplinary teams so there’s no longer IT that’s cornered off somewhere, there’s not marketing cornered off somewhere, but teams that are built from all of these disciplines. One thing that is the ice breaker, if you will, is data.
3. To allow for easier data adoption, just make data an omnipresence of the company. As in, make it visible every day with screens around the office showing trends and reports or have your data analytics meetings in the middle of the office so everyone can hear. You rarely go back from analytics or being a data driven organization once you’ve done it right.
4. Tools like Google Tag Manager, which are promoted as marketing tools, can actually be really powerful in the hands of a developer as well. These tools can empower teams to work together, more efficiently.
5. Tag management governance and ownership has to involve IT at least until somebody steps forth who understands the IT process.
6. Marketing professionals needs to take it up a notch and start talking about technical concepts and being really passionate on the technical side of things as well because it’s not quite enough to just have an opinion when in a digital role. At the same time, developers could use some time learning marketing concepts to better understand what they’re building and how it can allow consumers to truly engage.
7. It’s fine to have stories when presenting data, but they should be open to interpretation so when you present the data, you should actually present it as the start of a discussion rather than the end of one. So when you’re presenting data it’s not like this is the “be all, end all, fact of all things”. Instead it should be like this is my interpretation and maybe we can look at it from another perspective and see if something else happens.
See the full interview video below (recorded over Skype), with written transcription below.
Amin: We, at Info Trust are huge fans of you and your work. When you meet someone that isn’t a super data nerd, like us at Info Trust, or anyone that’s in the Google Analytics community, how do you introduce yourself and what you do?
Simo: That’s a toughy. It kind of depends on what kind of vibe I’m getting from the other person. I don’t want to bore people with my job titles or anything like that. I usually either say I’m a data geek or I say I’m a developer. Either works fine. Both require more explanation afterwards but both are kind of in the ballpark of what I’m doing in my daily, day-to-day life.
Amin: When we were talking before the interview, you mentioned your theme of this year is organization. Can you speak a little bit more to this and what this is?
Simo: For the past year I’ve been working at a Finnish company called Reaktor. Reaktor is quite a special company for the IT field in that we not only deliver solutions, but we but we also deliver organizational transformation, so when somebody wants to ask us to help with something, we’re always looking for how we can make that company or organization a better place so that they can do this stuff on their own later on…kind of an idealistic consultation approach. That really resonated with me. All my life that I’ve been a consultant it’s been that when you hire a consultant you use them as an extra set of hands to delegate to them some function of your organization, which doesn’t currently have resources in-house or which you don’t feel is in your field of business or something. I’ve never really understood that when it comes to marketing or analytics. I mean, how can you delegate something that is the heart of your business…the very core of your business to a company that maybe, sends you a monthly report or something absurd like that? So what I’ve been talking about so far this year and what I’ll be continuing or the rest of the year, is how to stop treating analytics as a project, stop treating it like something you buy off the shelf, and instead start thinking about how to devote the resources necessary to make it a holistic process in an organization.
This sounds a lot like buzz wordy and gobbledee goo, but I really, really believe it and I’ve seen concrete examples everyday when companies that are mature enough to actually take analytics as part of their everyday life. It’s not something that just happens automatically, basically. It’s something that when you enter the office, you see a big screen with your numbers. It’s not something that happens once a month when you get a report or something. So I’ve been really passionate about that. It resonates well with the marketing and analytics audience because everybody has in their mind, a picture of the kind of consultant who really does very little to help, just pushes these monthly reports, sells this kind of snake oil, stuff like keyword rankings and stuff, without actually taking the time to become intimate with my business…me, as the person who requires help. If I hire a consultant, I want them to love my business as much as I love it. That’s the only way for the relationship to work so that’s the whole thing in a nutshell. But it kind of branches off to agile analytics, agile methodologies, hybrid skills and all that kind of stuff that I think a modern organization really needs.
Amin: Follow up question to that: do you feel analytics needs to span beyond just the marketing team and the development team but also touch on client services or leadership…I guess it’s more of an entire organizational shift…is that how you approach a project?
Simo: Absolutely, because data itself isn’t confined to a silo, right? Everything produces data all the time so it would be weird if the only people interested in data in the company are a couple of consultants and then a controller elsewhere and then your marketing people. So the idea behind agility, for example, is that you have these multi-disciplinary teams so there’s no longer IT that’s cornered off somewhere, there’s no marketing cornered off somewhere, but we have teams that are built of all these disciplines and one thing that is the ice breaker, if you will, is data. So that’s what we start our discussions with and that’s what we end our discussions with. It’s very idealistic and a lot of hard work…many companies, really understandably, fall back to the waterfall model, which use these silos as a structure and they believe that’s the only way to stay in budget. It’s easy…the waterfall is easy because you can wash your hands of what the previous guy did because now it’s your turn and you can push it forward and again, wash your hands. But the problem is that’s not how the human organism works. There are no discrete stages. Everything is kind of flowing and influx all the time, so if you can find analytics just one part of your organization, nobody else in the organization has to take responsibility. They can all be like ‘that’s the data guy’s thing. I don’t have to worry about that.’ That, I think, is the start of the end, if you want to be data driven. It really requires that everybody be fascinated about data…passionate is great, but at least you have to be curious of data.
Amin: Do you think that is the most common challenge in organizations…the adoption of data within everyone’s individual role or is there another bigger challenge for analytics adoption?
Simo: I think it’s one of the challenges. It’s not a difficult one to solve. It’s step by step. The way we do it is if we find an organization that is tied in with this sort of thing, you can’t really make them do anything. It’s not like we have the power to force their hand but what we can do is create a kind of inspiration so, put up screens everywhere so the people can see data wherever they look…just make it an omnipresence of the company. We have all our data meetings and standup meetings in the middle of the office so that people can see the hubbub of the discussion and the back and forth that’s going on all the time and they can hear the terminology when they hear us talk. Some people hate the fact that we make so much noise, but I prefer the inspiration aspect of it. I think that’s a big thing, but I’m not black and white enough to say that everybody should be doing this. I think it’s a maturity thing…you have to understand the benefits to put your money into it but I’ve yet to see a case where a passionate organization, focused on growing and expanding and decided not to use data…I’ve yet to see a case where they actually, after being introduced to what data can do did not make decisions based on that data. So you rarely go back from analytics or a data driven organization once you’ve done it right.
Amin: A buzzword that comes to mind when you’re talking about this is data democratization. Do you think tools and technologies are designed for data democratization?
Simo: I think the tools have got it a bit backwards. I think you’re enforcing…especially the tools that I work with Google Analytics and Google Type Manager, for example. I think at least in some ways they force the stereotype of the marketer so their marketing jargon is focused on “it’s just one click away” and you don’t have to bother with IT anymore. I think they enforce these stereotypes and at the bulk of my consultation work is to break down these stereotypes and show how these tools can be just as well used and should be used by developers, by business owners. On the other hand you have these huge, complex setups in the BI world, for example, with data warehouses and ETL’s and Click Views and all these specialist tools and platforms that cost a whole lot of money. They’re probably at the other end of the spectrum where you actually do need a specialist to work with the data. I think that’s perfectly fine, but these kind of journeyman tools like Google Type Manager, I think the messaging has been a bit awkward where it’s solely focused on the marketing aspect and it’s a marketer’s tool when it can really be a powerful, powerful tool in the hands of an empowered developer.
In my presentation I have this one slide that I think always makes people frown is that I have…it basically states that a Tag Management Solution empowers developers above all else. Considering what the marketing message is, that it actually empowers marketers. I’ve always thought in a way that if you have a developer and he already has the web development understanding and then you teach him the marketing business and make him passionate about the product market thing and the agile process, he turns into a superstar…he’s got superpowers. He’s got everything. The developer’s side is the part that usually becomes the stumbling block because it requires practice, it requires discipline, it requires technical know-how. I’m not saying marketing isn’t hard either, but to be a developer you need a certain type of approach and there’s a good way to write code and a bad way to write code and you want to be in the former. In a way, I think these platforms have people focusing on the wrong groups all the time. I don’t think they should focus on any one single group, but of course they have to do so to grow and to expand, but personally I try to change the messaging to developers first and foremost.
Amin: You mentioned tag management and you write some awesome content on analytics and tag management and how you can accelerate your data collection process. So for an organization struggling with tag management, would you recommend they start with the development team…getting them on board with the concept of tag management or is there maybe a different approach?
Simo: Every single time, onboard the developers first…onboard IT first because whatever you do with the tool, it’s still attached to one of your most important commodities, which is your website and the tool is destructive. You can do all sorts of horrible stuff with the website and we’ve seen these examples day and day again. So governance and ownership has to be at IT at least until somebody steps forth who understands the IT process. This is just so critically important, which requires the IT and the developers understand what the tool is for and if the pitch is ‘we’re buying this tool because we want marketers to work behind your backs’, I’m not sure how well that will go in the dungeon where the developers work. So it all boils down to this complication paradigm…we’re talking about a thing called Conway’s Law…applications and solutions and infrastructure that you implement or develop in organizations…it mirrors the communication structure of the company. So the point of a tag management solution is to create a common tool and platform which has a developer aspect, a very powerful and strong and robust developer side to it, but it also has all these benefits for the marketer as well…and for the business owner and for the advertiser and so on. But the heart, because it’s a technical solution that’s tacked onto a website or an integral app, it has to reside in IT. It has to be governed by somebody who understands the repercussions of what can happen and most often, what will happen. I think that’s really important.
Amin: Shifting gears slightly because we’re talking a lot about developers and marketers and how they work together, but based on your bio, you actually started in web development, but then became interested in marketing, IT disciplines and web analytics. So, more just a personal question, what about marketing and analytics specifically drew your interest and maybe, how can we, as the marketers or consultants, take that and try to inspire developers we’re working with as well?
Simo: To be honest, I started in English linguistics research. I was a researcher at the University of Helsinki, working on an obscure dialect of English that was spoken in the 1970’s in a rural county. Anyway, then I moved to web development with the call of the capitalist really, really lured me over. I’ve been doing web development since as long as I could hold a mouse and I think what pulled me over to marketing was I wanted the web development stuff to have a meaning. I wanted it to relate to something. I didn’t’ just want it to create, I actually wanted to have an impact it had on audiences. So I joined a really nice marketing organization called Net Booster and did a lot of work with them around SEO, drifting towards analytics all the time because that was my forte and now I’m back in IT, of course. So I think this goes both ways…why developers should have a marketing paradigm is because we’re always talking about why we’re doing software development, we’re talking about the product marketing fit. That’s the most important thing. You have to have a product that fits the market you designed it for. Unless you understand the latter…if you only understand the product, it’s not going to take you far…you also have to understand the latter…what the marketing’s like. And the product marketing fit is something we talk about all the time ad nauseum. It’s the most important thing we have in our pallet, so if you wanted to do software development, it just makes sense to understand the paradigm of what the people are looking for, whether they want to go to specifics like SEO or PPC or Social Media advertising, that doesn’t matter. You just have to understand what makes a person click. What makes your potential buyer take your product over your competitor’s? As for the other way around…and this I think I also put on the slides…if you work in anything to do with digital, and you don’t understand the very basics of how a web browser works or what happens when a user goes to a webpage, or why is the web sometimes slow…I think you’ve got the wrong profession for yourself.
So I think in a way, I’m very biased here because I work in development, but I think marketing needs to take it up a notch and start talking about technical concepts and being really passionate on the technical side of things as well because it’s not quite enough to just have an opinion. This type of dogma that’s been around the scene for years, unless you really understand what you’re doing. So it’s just a wake up call to everyone. If you say something, you better believe and understand what you’re talking about, regardless of where you work.
Amin: You mention on your blog, you have singular purpose, which is to tell complicated stories in a simple, understandable, actionable way. So what would you recommend for those data nerds out there to present stories in the same way? What are some tips and tricks they need to keep in mind as they present some of these stories?
Simo: As much as possible try to communicate face to face. The problem with the blog is I never know who’s reading, so I’ve created a persona to do my writing and I don’t think that’s ever changed. I think it’s the same person all the time. It’s a person who has the basic knowledge and understanding of how to do these things but really wants to be overwhelmed. That’s why the rhetoric I have in my blog posts is kind of loose and off-hand…I try to be comical which usually backfires, but I try to be very casual and colloquial in the rhetoric, but the concepts are, I don’t try to make them anything else than what they are. They are sometimes very complex. So the persona I think about is somebody who understands what I’m saying, but might need to do a little extra research to do it, to really get it. I know that alienates some people but I think it’s better to alienate people on the basis that they didn’t understand than to alienate them because it was too easy, because if they didn’t understand they can come back later once they have understood the topic.
For anybody wanting to make an impact…when I’m presenting a conference what’s really important for me is to look at people and how their eyes are moving, because I can quickly see if it’s going over their heads and then I can switch gears a little. So it comes with experience, I guess, but it’s also a question of empathy. It’s very easy to lock yourself into a little world where you think everybody knows as much as you do or everybody’s passionate about the same things you are. The most difficult thing for anybody who is presenting, is to step out of that box and really look at what other people might be doing and what they might be feeling.
It’s interesting you said about turning it into stories. That’s one of the things I try to avoid more than anything, is to turn data into a story. I just throw the data out there and let people create the story. There’s a certain amount of subjectivity when it comes to analogies and the numbers we look at tend to have completely different interpretations depending on what the mindset is that’s looking at them. Again, going to the marketing world a little, there’s a tendency to do these little tricks where you write a beautiful sentence and embed the numbers within, but when you write the sentence and use phrases like “huge increase” or “amazing sales”, you’re actually embedding your own interpretation into the text. When someone reads that, it’s very difficult to not be influenced by the analyst’s interpretation. So I think it’s fine to have those stories, but I think they should be open to interpretation so when you present the data, you should actually present it as the start of a discussion rather than the end of one. So when you’re presenting data it’s not like this is the “be all, end all, fact of all things”…I’m telling you how it is. Instead it should be like this is my interpretation and maybe we can look at it from another perspective and see if something else happens. That was just picking up on something you said earlier.
Amin: So one last question…I noticed that you are a Google Expert Developer. What kind of perks do you get being a Google Expert Developer for Google Analytics?
Simo: I’m trying to think if I get any perks. We get a cool badge and we get to say that we’re part of a very expansive group. Of course there are some things…we do have an inside track into what’s going on in the platform. My company’s already GACP, so I already have a certain kind of inside track. Any company working with Google Analytics on a professional scale should take a look at being a Google Analytics certified partner. Being a Developer Expert, we have quarterly meetings with GA and GT developer teams so we get to know what’s coming up. I like to think we have a direct channel to the developers so we can talk to them if we have questions but that’s a relationship I think I’ve cultivated over the years anyway so it just enforces that perk. There is an all-expenses paid trip to Mountain View once a year for the GA Summit, which is nice.
It hasn’t really changed what I do, it just means I have official approval of what I’m doing and the good thing about it is because I’m not a Google employee, I can still bash them. I can still criticize them openly, which I do. I think Google makes really good platforms, but I don’t think they’re the best in the world. I think we have yet to decide who makes the best platforms…the best tools. There’s a lot of shortcomings to them and I try to be as honest as possible about them because I don’t’ think Google is honest enough about their own platforms. Why would you? What kind of product strategy is it to nullify your own achievements? I think we are a necessary part of the equation in evangelizing, if I can use that horrible word, Google’s platform security, for developers specifically. I am branching out toward the marketing audiences as well because I’ve worked in marketing and I kind of know what they’re looking for as well.
Amin: Well it’s definitely a recognition well deserved for you, being a Google Expert Developer. Also, I forgot to mention, congratulations on your recent nomination with the Digital Analytics Association.
Simo: Yeah, last year I was a finalist in 2 categories, this year, 1. I’m not going to win it. I’m going against Krista Seidan from Google again so she’s going to sweep the board as usual. It’s so cool, it’s always fun to be nominated by your peers. There’s nothing that compares to that. So, I try to be humble enough but I’m baffled why this happens because I don’t really do the kind of outreach or the kind of brand management that most of the other nominees do, who do an excellent job as well. I just write blog posts, so it’s always fun to get the recognition. It’s not what I’m looking for. I would write this blog if nobody even read it. It’s a very important outlet for myself and I use it daily. I look at ‘have I thought about this before?’ Yeah, I have thought about this before. It’s a resource for myself as well, and my colleagues. But it’s an amazing recognition and I’m really, really humbled by it.
2. More Articles by Simo Ahava on his blog here.