The importance of understanding what is working in online marketing

Mar 20, 2013

Table of contents:

  1. Collecting data
  2. Interpreting data
  3. Deciding what to do next
  4. Typical campaigns
  5. Conclusion

Customer Acquisition for online products can often mean excruciating slow progress as you experiment to find the path of repeatable growth. It will often feel like you are talking to an empty room, treading water or that you just can’t find that opportunity to connect with your target audience.

There is a wealth of data available for websites and online applications. You can analyse just about every part of your sales funnel and then monitor how your product is being used and the exact moment that you are losing people to churn.

The Internet has also provided amazing distribution of text, images and video content. In a world of connectivity, it should be easier than ever to find and connect with your tribe.

On Monday I covered What analytics software should I use? as some suggestions for what tools you can use to analyse and grow your online company.

In this post I want to look at the strategy of building a successful online business rather than the specific tools you should use. What campaigns should you run? How do you qualitatively and quantifiably measure performance? And how do you know what to do next?

Online strategy is a mixture of art and science. You need to be brutally honest when things aren’t working and have the understanding to know what to do next. Many people choose one easy strategy and bury their heads in the sand when it doesn’t work. Instead, you need to accept that your first experiment failed and use the results to find the next path to try.

Collecting data

Having access to a wealth of usage data and analytics can be both liberating and overwhelming. You suddenly have all of this data on who is visiting your website, what they are looking at and where they are coming from.

However, a big problem with this data is the majority of people don’t understand how to use it. Wasting time delving into the minutia of a statistic that makes no difference to your desired outcome is worse than completely neglecting your online analytics all together.

Realistically, unless you have a highly trafficked website, you don’t need to be analysing data any more than once a month.

A good analogy for analysing your online data is the stock market. For the average day trader, looking at the performance of the stock market on a daily, weekly or even monthly basis is probably too often. What really matters is long term trends and being able to look at large datasets to determine the right decisions. There’s no point in over analysing the performance on short term basis because it doesn’t matter to the bigger picture. The day trader’s stress levels will be much higher if she watches the daily fluctuations rather than the yearly trends.

If your website gets less than 50 thousand visitors a month, it’s probably not worth looking at your analytics on a weekly basis.

Interpreting data

As I mentioned above, a second big problem is interpreting the data. Drawing the wrong conclusions from a dataset will mean you end up wasting your time and resources. Over-analysing the wrong areas whilst neglecting what really matters means you will never discover the right path to grow your online business.

For every website, application or company, the data which you need to analyse will be different. A simple package like Google Analytics allows you to chart far too much data that could ever be useful.

A good online strategy derives from having a solid single goal. For example, a revenue and profit based goal is a black or white goal where you will know exactly when you have achieved it. Increasing brand recognition or customer loyalty are also two worthwhile goals, but with revenue, you will be able to see if it is working by the hard numbers on your bottom line.

Say for example your goal is to drive signups to your free trial. This is the single most important thing to measure. Page views, time on site and bounce rate are all meaningless unless it translates to increasing the number of signups. When you look at your analytics through the lens of a single goal, the sea of data parts and you can find the clear actionable path that you should take.

Deciding what to do next

Unless you have some magical insight into what you should be doing online, your first attempts at working towards your goal will probably be complete failures. Assumptions are what you perceive to be the right thing to do. However, more often than not, assumptions will be completely wrong when it actually comes into contact with the outside world.

Even when a tactic does not meet your goal, there is still an important outcome.

Firstly, you know that this tactic did not work. However just because something didn’t work once, I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out all together. You need to be sure, and so running similar experiments is a good investment of your time because you can begin to rule out specific variables of the experiment.

Secondly, it should give you insight into what to try next. If you structure your experiments correctly, each one should logically lead to the next. From time to time you will find yourself at a completely dead end. In this case, you should refer back to a previous experiment to find an alternate path.

For example, say as a tactic for increasing signups to our free trial we sponsored a series of posts on a prominent industry related news blog. The blog receives a huge amount of daily traffic, but at the end of the series, the campaign did not generate much traffic for our website and it had a lower conversion rate than the site’s average. This experiment can be determined as a failure because we didn’t increase signups and we didn’t find a way to increase conversions. This is not a repeatable process for future growth.

The next logical step is to try the same sponsored content approach but on a smaller, more niche website. Say for example our product is a SaaS Project Management application. The next experiment could be to target a prominent blogger in the productivity online niche and work with her to produce a series of posts on project management.

As you can see, just because our first experiment was a failure does not mean that the approach was wrong. Instead of declaring that sponsored content was a failure, we can make the assumption that the audience of the website was too widespread and not focused on the problem that our product is solving. By trying the experiment again, we can test this assumption by targeting a more focused source of traffic.

Probably the worst thing you can do at this stage is to try and increase everything in Google Analytics. Hopefully this example shows that incoming links, page views or social shares actually mean nothing at all when you analyse your efforts through the lens of your specific goal.

Typical campaigns

If you are stuck in a rut with growing your online business, generating leads or increasing the revenue your website produces, don’t worry, I’m here to help.

The following are 5 overall campaigns that fit with just about every type of website, online product or offline organisation. Obviously if any of the following intuitively don’t fit with your company you can rule them out straight away.

If your entire online strategy revolves around sitting looking at your graphs in Google Analytics, here are the steps I would take to increase your online marketing efforts.

SEO / SEM are good, but often not enough

Search Engine Optimisation and Search Engine Marketing are two online marketing tactics that anyone who wants to create an online presence should take on. Being discoverable on the Internet is so important and it takes a long time to build up the reputation and credibility in the eyes of Google.

Depending on what your company does exactly or how your intend to convert traffic to sales will effect how much effort you put into this strategy. I think every company should at least have a regular blog that is written by members of the team, and not outsourced to a content producer.

SEO and SEM might prove to be a valuable strategy for your particular business model, but it isn’t for everyone. If SEO and SEM can’t produce enough traffic or enough conversions that are required to grow your business, you need to look beyond these two starting tactics. However, just because they don’t produce enough traffic or conversions don’t neglect them all together. They will still be critical to the long term viability of your online brand.

Direct to blogger

The next general tactic I would try would be to reach out to industry specific bloggers so you can work with them to leverage their audience and their network. Bloggers spend years writing and forming a strong relationship with their audience and so you need to treat them with respect. For most companies, getting a mention from a industry related blogger will be more valuable than getting mentioned in a national newspaper.

The blogger won’t want to do any low effort marketing that could jeopardise their relationship with their audience. Bloggers are looking to increase their traffic and audience by publishing targeted and high quality content. By working closely with a blogger, you can produce high quality content that will benefit both them and you. Don’t produce sales pitches or anything that is making a hard sell. You need to have an imagination when it comes to thinking and producing content. If your content sucks then this is going to be a waste of time.


The next big general tactic I would experiment with would be community websites. These types of websites are where highly passionate and engaged people form together around a topic or interest. For example, Pinterest is a visual pin board that is popular with affluent women. A website like Tumblr is home to many different types of niches and sub-genres.

Often community websites like these will have a brand programme where you can promote your content, profile or message. However, these are usually aimed more at national and global brands and not your average small online company looking for growth. It’s usually the case that you need to invest time, rather than money into these experiments.

For example, say we wanted to target Pinterest as a way to generate traffic and increase conversions. The way to become a source of traffic on Pinterest is to actively use the product, engage with other users and produce high quality content that is naturally share-worthy. Signing up to Pinterest and uploading your company logo and a couple of random company pictures that no one will be interested is not only a waste of time, but also makes you look like a complete idiot.

Again, with community based experiments, always keep your goal at the forefront of what you do. It’s often better to target experiments that can be driven by money rather than time because you find out what is not working much quicker. However, community websites can be an amazing way to build a loyal and engaged audience for your brand. Don’t jump head first into community based websites and start spamming people or trying to push your product or service straight away. You won’t generate any good attention and you will probably destroy your brand and your company image.

In person (seminar, conference)

Just because you are thinking about growing your online business or company websites does not mean that everything you do should be on the Internet. Real life experiments can be an equally important driver of online success, even though you do all the work and investment offline.

For example, if your target audience does not hang out online or read industry related news websites or blogs you will never reach them. Take our Project Management SaaS product for example. If you are targeting non-technical middle management, it could be hard to grow your company be solely online means. Instead, local seminars that show the benefit of productivity hacks and how software like yours can dramatically increase the output of small business can be highly valuable. In this example you get to meet your target audience, understand their problems and see the stumbling blocks to conversion with your own eyes.

For traditional offline companies looking to grow their business online, the work you do in the real world could be equally if not more important to your online efforts early on. You need to publicise your website through trade publications and your marketing material to get the word out about your website.

If you are just starting out as a small startup, it’s likely that nobody has ever heard of you and nobody cares about your product. Conferences are a good way to network with a target audience, introduce your product and explain the problem you are looking to solve. Don’t go to a conference with the intention of generating as much attention as you can. Instead of handing out business cards to everyone you see, try to have deeper conversations with a smaller select group of people.

If you started your company as a purely online play, it can seem daunting to do anything offline. Offline marketing doesn’t scale and is more costly in terms of time and money. But in the early days of traction, or as part of a bigger online play, offline marketing can be critical to your future success.


Many inexperienced people who have been tasked with online marketing think that having a website with a couple of Call to Actions and having Google Analytics installed is everything that they can do. When their website inevitably does not produce growth or revenue, they write off the Internet as not suiting their business.

Having a website and Google Analytics installed is barely even the first step on the path towards online growth. If you have reached this point and you are investing time analysing your data without any signs of growth, you are doing it wrong.

To make online marketing work you need to be constantly asking yourself how your actions are contributing to the goals of the company. Revenue and profit are the lifeblood of an organisation. You need to be spending your time experimenting with campaigns that directly contribute to growth and an increase of revenue and profit. Anything else is just vanity, or worse, pointless. A complete waste of time.

Don’t bury your head in the sand and give up. Online marketing is much more than just having a website. It’s about science, data, experiments and finding what works and what doesn’t. You will not only grow your business but you will grow closer to your customers and the audience you are targeting.

Online marketing is critical to the growth of your company. What are you spending your time on?

Philip Brown


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