Interview with Brian Clifton – Successful Analytics

Brian Clifton (PhD) is a well known and respected industry voice who has specialised his career in web analytics which has seen him work for Google as their head of analytics.During this interview Brian provides some insights on his latest book, Successful Analytics and the key sections of the book such as how to get buy-in from senior management in investing in analytics, choosing the right tool, building your insights team and setting KPI’s and dashboards to monitor performance.

Brian also discusses the future analytics landscape within organisations and also some of the latest trends in digital marketing


Tell us a little about Brian?

I have been around a while! I formed my first company in the UK in 2007 (before Google!) that provided website build and search marketing services. It was way too soon – at that time, I spent most of my efforts educating the market as to what the “Internet” was. (Sometimes I lament I should have moved to Silicon Valley to turbo charge my experience). My first involvement with web analytics was with Webtrends and by the late 90s my company was a reseller for their software to compliment the rest of the business activities.

By 2002, I became disillusioned with Webtrends and sought an alternative. Discovering Urchin software I was blown away by its easy of use and powerful features. We became their first UK reseller and I started to focus my efforts purely on data and analysis. In 2005 Google acquired Urchin and they recruited me to be their Head of Analytics for Europe. I will never forget the 14 interviews I had to go through…!

Those were heady days – a chaotic and entrepreneurial environment at Google. I had the privilege to meet the founders, chat with likes of Eric Schmidt and Vint Cerf, listen to ex presidents and other luminaries talk, and work with some very, very smart people. However, after 3 years of building and guiding the team, I was itching to be a practitioner again as well as write books. So I left the fastest growing company in history to setup a data consultancy that I am still working for today – Search Integration. Why? Because it gives me great satisfaction to have a direct impact on a company’s performance… and I like sharing my knowledge by writing books!



Tell us a about your new book, Successful Analytics – Who is it aimed at and how what insights does it offer an organisation?

Successful Analytics is a natural progression for those analysts who familiar with the day-to-day process of working with Google Analytics. That is, they have been doing their work for a few years now, but are struggling to get buy-in from senior management to invest in their team, or become a senior data manager themselves. Similarly it is aimed at senior managers and executives who have responsibility for data. The book is a guide for them to know what to invest in, what is important, how to scale and what they can expect in return.

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What I found so different and refreshing from reading your book is that it’s packed full of actionable insights and points on how a business can successfully set up, monitor, manage and measure their analytics. Was that your purpose?

Thanks for the feedback. Actionable insights is an oft over used a buzzword, but it is very much what businesses need to focus on when collecting data. All too often I find people collecting data just because they can, and analysing it just because it is fun or interesting. However, if the learning is not actionable there really is no point – you will lose the interest of your audience (senior management) and will not be able to grow yourself or your team (gain investment). Every analysis must lead to an action item and I stick to that mantra throughout the book.


Analytics can seem very daunting to not only organisations but also digital marketers from choosing the right tool, setting the right processes right through to correct implementation of tracking, reporting, understanding and finally insights – Do you think this is an issue in terms of getting better buy-in and if so, how can it be overcome?

In a word, yes. Senior managers often do not know what is required to perform or gain analytics capabilities (its why I wrote my latest book!). Often the perception is that the tools will do most of this for you – few humans required! But of course, there is a lot to plan for when using digital analytics, just as there is for any business intelligence function. But who should be that planner and how do they get started? Often such a person does not exist, and so the marketing department “takes it on”. And that’s the problem – without specialist experience, analytics is daunting.

To overcome this and guide you through the myriad of decisions that are needed, partner with a specialist. For Google Analytics that’s a GACP – a Google Analytics Certified Partner. Then as your knowledge grows consider building an internal team. In Successful Analytics I discuss the five roles required for the analytics “Dream Team”, yet few organisations have a need for five full-time analysts. Therefore, partnering with the right GACP long-term to fill your gaps is an important strategic decision.


Getting actionable insights from the data you are reporting on is a challenge. What process would you recommend to organizations of all sizes to follow?

You need to get your stakeholders involved. That is, don’t work in a silo waiting for people to ask you questions (they may not know what questions to ask!). The best way to avoid siloization is to run a KPI workshop (or several) with your stakeholders. That is, establish what metrics are important to them, how they consume the data received, and at what level they are at with data analysis and insights.

Once established, ensure you tell stories with your data to your stakeholders – don’t just deliver reports or dashboards. Telling stories with data is an important skill-set any data person needs to develop if they are to have an impact on the organisation. It’s what Chapters 9 and 10 are all about…



How do you see the roles and responsibilities of analytics being structured in an organisation in 2015?

Unfortunately I do not foresee much change happening for some time. It is something I hope to influence, but significant change within organisations takes many years to achieve. Essentially, analytics has to go beyond web and digital to be more business focused i.e. integrated. Integrating disparate data sources is still a major pain point in the industry – it requires a lot of heavy lifting.

Moving ahead, I expect the five roles I discuss in the analytics “Dream Team” to become a standard set of skills to recruit for. At present one person tends to do all, but the tools are becoming increasingly more sophisticated (not complex) and therefore require more and more time to master. Specialization is stating to happen – but its limited to data agencies at present…


What do you see as the key traits to develop if you’re looking to develop a successful digital marketing career?

Smart marketers are numerate and web development savvy. That is, understand how web development works, the constraints and difficulties the Dev Team face so that they can work together. Of course, that is a two-way street – a well integrated web dev team understands the time pressures and the issues of simultaneously combining multiple campaign channels. People who can bridge those areas, regardless of which side they originate from, make excellent digital marketers.


What’s on your reading list?

I enjoy books that challenge my thinking – both as an analyst and the development of digital as a medium in general (privacy issues, free to use, net neutrality etc.). Here are a few I recommend:

  • Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  • Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver
  • Web Analytics 2.0 by Avinash Kaushik
  • Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb
  • A Cartoon Guide to Statistics by Larry Gonick
  • Googled: The End of the World As We Know It by Ken Auletta
  • Don’t Make Me Think! by Steve Krug
  • Information is Beautiful by David McCandless
  • Facts are Sacred by Simon Rogers
  • Purple Cow by Seth Godin
  • – Not a book, though a great resource for anyone working in digital. The quality of their industry research reports, and the people that produce them, is excellent. I regularly refer to their reports and surveys in my books and presentations.

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