The Modern Digital Analytics Existential Crisis

By | 02/28/2023

This article title isn’t clickbait but instead a thought exercise. It’s something I’ve been trying to mentally reconcile for quite a while without much direction. In fact, I started mulling over this right around the time I posted about bot traffic. Our industry will never go away. There will always be jobs… so why is there an existential crisis? I don’t want to fall into a cynicism whirlpool – so I want to use this article to try to empirically show why our current operating model needs to fundamentally change. The basis of the argument is this: analytics complexity is outpacing analytics utility.

At the end of January I was lucky enough to be able to attend the Superweek conference in Budapest, speaking about finding the “new wild west” of analytics. This is the long version of of that story.

Are we doomed?

No… but also yes… but mostly no. Let’s talk a little bit about the last 20 years of analytics. Everything was cute and new. Somebody said “data is the new oil” and a collection of CEO parrots repeated it ad nauseum for over a decade. This lip service helped our industry get a foothold. We innovated with testing tools, new ways to measure site behavior, better ways to manage/deploy tags, and even led to college degrees based on our industry. For those 20 years, we also have struggled to get that seat at the big kids’ table. There are a lot of reasons for that – and there are exceptions to that rule (keep in mind, they are exceptions). One of the predominant reasons is just the nature of what we do.

We don’t create. We don’t reach new markets. Other people do that and we help them do it better. By design, that is our ceiling. That’s not to say it’s a low ceiling. Content testing yields great hypotheses. Deep data analysis informs marketing investment strategies. Predictive modeling can anticipate purchase decisions. All of this helps a business grow; and also, arguably 99% of companies might effectively execute 1 of those 3 things (if they’re lucky). This is enough to sustain a relatively healthy industry, but there’s still a ceiling. That’s how businesses work, though. Very few roles have no ceiling. Support is a critical role and I’m personally proud to fulfill that need. So what’s with the doom and gloom?

Our ceiling is dropping

Over the last 15 years, while I see teams grow, it stays relatively proportionate with the overall company growth. If we don’t currently have a seat at the table – and let’s say we want one – that would mean we have to also disproportionately grow our department budget. That is uncommon – and every conference I’ve been to has at least one session that talks about this struggle. Why? Because making change isn’t a solo work, but a symphony that needs to be orchestrated. As the analytics conductor, you do not get to pick your musicians (the people who do the stuff with your recommendations). Therefore, they are a key variable in defining your ceiling and you have to spend time supporting and nurturing your orchestra.

That hasn’t changed and that won’t change. As an analyst, YOU also have a ceiling. Let’s forget about personal experience and capability with tools. As an analytics team, we have a limited amount of time in a day. More often than not, it’s spent on doing tasks that do not add incremental value to the business (like bad meetings, reporting, implementation, maintenance, etc). The other time is conducting analysis and orchestration. Every job has that breakout of stuff that increments value and stuff that doesn’t, but is still stuff you probably need to do. Every job, no exceptions. The stuff that doesn’t add value is outsourced as much as possible so we can hone in on stuff that does.

The digital analytics industry is in an awkward position, in that the complexity of our industry is outpacing our utility. Maybe a better way to put it is it’s undermining our growth. More and more of our time is redirected to tasks that mitigate loss as opposed to creating value – and that’s something we need to pay attention to because the ceiling of the value we bring to the table drops with it.

Analytics loss mitigation is overtaking value creation

Reality check

The only constant in life is change. The analytics industry has always been evolving. Until 4 or 5 years ago, each stage in its evolution has brought us a little closer to spending more time orchestrating and less time on maintenance or loss mitigation. 10 years ago we were unveiling digital analytics tools that would “cost-justify itself in under a week” (see: A/B testing, tag management). Today? Not so much. Sure, you have CDPs (the spiritual successor of DMPs) – but their use cases are bespoke and time to value is often measured in years, not weeks. Then what? Server-side tagging? Event-based analytics architecture (like GA4)? Compliance tools? These are all products of loss mitigation. They’re great tools and necessary, but do not create (on their own) incremental value – and now they’re what we spend our time on.

The reality of our industry isn’t that we’re shrinking. The reality is we’re not growing. Gathering data is harder, so we have to use more complicated tools and take more time to reach the same conclusions that took a fraction of the time 5 years ago. This is an outcome of regulations that limit what data you can collect – which also impacts browser functionality. As an outcome, toolsets change architectures so you achieve some form of parity that we had before the regulations. So you’re spending more time migrating your implementation and retraining stakeholders. All of this is necessary work that will not go away, but none of this justifies growing an analytics team.

So now what?

Feel free to ride this one out. You won’t lose your job. Companies don’t often hire for this stuff because there’s gotta be some kind of end-state, right? Eventually legislation will slow down or stop. Eventually we’ll migrate to GA4 or AEP and be done. We’ll migrate to server-side tag management and things will be A-OK. Why hire for something that doesn’t justify a full-time role? So you’re necessary. No, you’re critical… more critical than ever! You just won’t be spending your time thinking about how to grow the business, but instead preventing it from shrinking. There will always be a place for those people – just not a place at the big kids’ table.

For the rest of us who much prefer to focus on business growth, that leaves us in a bit of an existential crisis. What’s next? Where’s the new wild west of analytics? I don’t know the answer to that, but here’s where my head is at. After the tool changes and privacy regulation – what do I think the end-state will look like? If we have some semblance of a vision of the end-state, we can start innovating now.

I think we’re getting hints of that with new legislation in Louisiana requiring verified ID to access adult websites. Tim Berners-Lee’s Solid Identity Pod concept, while a very different concept from the Louisiana legislation, revolves around the concept of some kind of identity possession and verification. This also overlaps with human and bot detection. So instead of reacting to every small change in our industry, how do we make plans to take advantage of new opportunities to grow? Coincidentally, Tim Wilson also wrote about a similar topic (it’s much more articulate than mine). Most importantly, let’s be open about this problem and collectively figure out what’s next.

One thought on “The Modern Digital Analytics Existential Crisis

  1. Jyot Patel

    I really like that you are voicing this out. Not sure but could ROI focused Performance based projects something clients may look for ?

    I also don’t know the solution. Just figuring out. But one thing is clear, we need a lot of innovation for our industry to continue adding to business growth.

    Great read by the way! Thanks for writing this.


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