Denise asks, “How do you help employees think analytically to determine what the data means?”
Thinking analytically employs several different mental skills and attributes. All are learnable, but some people have more natural aptitudes than others. Before we can talk about helping employees think analytically, we have to define what analytical thinking is.
Analytical Thinking Skills
Analytical thinking isn’t a singular discipline, but a series of skills rolled up together. Ask 100 analysts what analytical thinking is and you’ll probably get 200 answers, but a broad generalization of the major skill types looks like this:
- Subject matter expertise: the ability to know the topic you’re analyzing in enough depth to make a useful analysis
- Problem definition and articulation: the ability to identify the problem you’re trying to solve and the desired outcome
- Information management: the ability to retrieve, analyze, classify, and synthesize data
- Inductive and deductive reasoning: the ability to formulate or prove hypotheses and models from data
- Computation and mathematics: the ability to work with quantitative data and transform it
- Visualization and communication: the ability to communicate your analysis to someone else
- Judgement and critical thinking: the ability to know when something is a lost cause, when the rules do and don’t apply, and the difference
- Ideation and creativity: the ability to generate new ideas from existing data and even the absence of it
You’ll note that each of these areas is practically a profession unto itself; you could spend a lifetime learning the sub-disciplines of analytical thinking and specializing in one or more of them.
So how does one get started building these skills? The first step is understanding what your capabilities and skill gaps are. With honest self-assessment, determine which areas you’re strong in and which areas are your biggest gap, using a specific marketing task.
Let’s say you’ve got a known data source like your website’s performance data in Google Search Console:
Looking at the skills list above, let’s walk through the data. As we do so, compare the steps I take with the steps you’d take and see what you’d do differently. Keep notes – this is your blueprint for assessing yourself in a practical, real world example.
Subject Matter Expertise
Before we begin, we need know whether we know the subject of our analysis. In this particular case, I’m examining my website’s performance. I should hope that I’m expert in my own website. However, if I were examining the site of a client in a field I don’t know well, I’d want to do some research and at least get a layman’s understanding of what their company, industry, and products/services are about. Without that understanding, doing any kind of analysis would be purely quantitative and would have no useful context. And as we’ll see, numbers aren’t everything.
Problem Definition and Articulation
Is there a problem? Can you tell? How would you know if there’s a problem or not? A very cursory look at the performance graph above indicates that performance slipped in June of 2021. So there’s at least a case to be made that we should be digging into why that happened.
Tools like Search Console are best used as data sources. They’re not analysis tools or even reporting engines; they’re more like the label on the outside of a box that tells you what’s in the box. Do you know how to get the relevant data out of Search Console to analyze it with real analysis tools (even if it’s nothing more than a spreadsheet)?
Inductive and deductive reasoning
Once you’ve extracted the data from Search Console, what do you do with it? Right now it’s literally just a pile of numbers. From that, we have to formulate some kind of hypothesis, some kind of point of view from the information so that we can direct our inquiry. Like the maps app on your phone, our analytical technology is only useful if we know where we want to go.
This stage is where subject matter expertise comes into play. Bob Stone’s 1968 direct marketing framework (list, offer, creative) tells us that we need to ensure we’ve got the right audience first, then that we’ve got the right offer, and then that we’ve got the right creative.
In the context of Search Console, that means understanding whether we’re attracting the right audience (queries) or we’ve got the right content (pages). Those are the first two things we want to take a look at.
It’s important to note here that inductive and deductive reasoning isn’t a single stage in the process; constructing and refining our hypotheses is an ongoing process.
Computation and Mathematics
Now that we have a general sense of what we want to look at, we apply mathematical principles to our data. We’ve decided that clickthrough rates of queries and pages are what we want to use to determine what the problem is. Let’s start with a quick examination of both pages and queries to see what our clickthrough rates are.
Here’s a quick summary of our queries:
We see that in terms of search queries, we have an average clickthrough rate of 10.8% and a median clickthrough rate of 4%.
Next, let’s look at our pages:
We see an average clickthrough rate of 4.05% and a median of ~1%.
Based on these two summaries, we can say with reasonable confidence that the pages reporrt shows we’re in worse shape there. When it comes to queries, we’re getting better performance. So, now it’s time to dig into the pages. Why are they underperforming? What’s going on there?
Visualization and Communication
We know from the graph in Search Console that performance dropped in June of 2021. However, it’s not clear what might have led to that. This is where our computation and visualization skills come into play; we need to get the raw data out of Search Console to analyze it. I’ve exported my data for the last year and put it in a quick graph so we can see better what might be going on:
- Line 1, the orange, represents impressions and for the most part they’ve been growing. No concerns there.
- Line 2, the green, represents clicks and we see that peak in late March 2021.
- Line 3, the blue, represents search rankings in aggregate. In May, I see that go up (higher is bad).
- Line 4, the red, represents clickthrough rate. We see that begin to decline in mid-April.
We now return to our inductive reasoning. Given these new facts, what could we determine? Sequentially over time, I started losing clicks before I started losing rankings or clickthrough rates. That tells me my content wasn’t engaging when someone saw my site come up in search, they didn’t feel it was a good match to their query, so they didn’t click.
Judgement and Critical Thinking
At this point, we have to ask, is this a lost cause, or is there an action we can take to improve things? I’d argue that this is not a lost cause, but we need to be very clear about what action we should take. Let’s see what changed if we compare March of 2021 with May of 2021. We’re specifically looking for declines in clicks:
Uh oh. Some posts lost quite a few clicks in May compared to March. Was it because those pages lost their position in rankings? No; in fact, the average position change was about 2 or 3 places, nothing huge. So those pages need some love.
Ideation and Creativity
Now that we have a general idea of what seems to have gone wrong, we have to come up with ideas to fix it. The first stop is to of course check the basics, make sure the site is functioning correctly. After that, we look at each page and the associated query for ideas.
I see a few anomalies here; pages that do well even though they don’t necessarily rank well. Those are pages I should revisit, revamp, and republish.
What would be really powerful is if I used the biggest, baddest natural language generation models to create new content for those pages that was thematically aligned with what’s already there, in effect creating a lot more content on those pages. That’ll be my next step, blending human creativity with machine creativity.
This walkthrough isn’t intended as a search engine optimization recipe so much as it’s intended to be an illustration of analytical thinking in a practical, concrete example. We would apply those same skills to any kinds of data or analytics we’re faced with in the workplace, and what I’ve shown is merely an example. It’s one approach of many, and you could easily ask a hundred data-driven marketers for how they approach a task like SEO and they’d give you a hundred different, mostly equally correct answers.
What matters is that you have those core skills and you bring them to bear on your data problems. Your next steps are to evaluate, using the framework in general and the specific example of your choice, where your strengths and areas of improvement are in analytical thinking. Then double down on those strengths while building out the areas you’re not as strong in, and you’ll become a marketing force to be reckoned with.
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