Get More from Your Analytics: Applying an Ecommerce Model to Higher Ed, Part III

A chalkboard filled with charts and diagrams
In Part I of this series, we discussed the problem a lot of Higher Ed analysts run into. Connecting the value of content to the value of a goal conversion is often a daunting task. Google Analytics is a great tool, but unless we take some very specific steps, we lose out on a lot of its reporting capabilities. Part II dealt with one easy solution to get more out of your analytics: Page Value. In Part III, we are going to discuss going beyond the standard implementation, into the realm of ecommerce.

So, if you’re just joining us, you may want to take a minute to review Get More from Your Analytics Part I and Part II before you dive in.

Standard Ecommerce

The second solution to the problem of linking content to goals is the standard ecommerce plugin. It’s going to look a lot different than the Page Value solution, and it really is. But we can build on something we’ve already accomplished. With page value, we took our important user actions and we thought about them in terms of some dollar value, however arbitrary. And however arbitrary that may seem, it’s still progress. A step in the right direction.

When considering an ecommerce option, it’s important to realize that we need to take many more steps on the technical side of things to make it work. So you might be asking yourself, “Why use ecommerce at all?”

And you’d be right to ask yourself that question. After All, Google Analytics is not built with Higher Ed in mind. But, there are a lot of powerful reports in this tool that you may be ignoring, just because they’re labeled ecommerce. And ignoring them would be a shame, because we’ve already begun to consider the content of our website as having a particular value.

So when I mentioned in previous posts that you’d need to define a dollar value for your goal conversions, alarm bells went off in your heads. You fought back and said Matt, we don’t DO ecommerce. We don’t SELL anything on the website.

And I understood you. Believe me I did.

We agreed that you were probably ignoring Page Value altogether because it didn’t look like it was working. Same goes for ecommerce in all likelihood.

You go to your Analytics, navigate to conversions, accidentally click on the ecommerce section and try to open a report. You get a message from the Google machine that tells you you haven’t enabled ecommerce features.

Ecommerce tracking report in Google Analytics

The Google machine is not wrong.

But it also makes one fatal assumption: That you even knew you needed to. That’s because Google Analytics is not made for Higher Ed. It’s made for, optimized for, sold to, marketed at …. ecommerce businesses. And because of that, a lot of intelligent users out there (much like yourself) are excluded from a really great section of the tool.

At this point, I encourage to you to question yourself. Are you entirely sure that you are not an eCommerce site? Regardless of what Google thinks you should be doing, you should think seriously about what your website is doing. Are entirely sure that you’re not an ecommerce site?

Take a minute to consider the true nature of your website.

What is my website for?

Let’s oversimplify: Users visit your site, research what you have to offer, compare your offerings to competitor sites, look for incentives to choose your brand, then decide to spend money on your services.

At the heart of it is a cold, objective truth: Your website is there to sell your product. And here’s the tough selling point, the thing I am here to challenge you with:

Your website is a tool you use to SELL YOUR PRODUCT.

It may not be in the traditional sense. You may consider what you do to be 100% not for profit. You don’t list prices, you don’t try to beat the death out of users with made up holiday sales and end of year clearance promotions or gimmicky marketing tricks like some of those other giant ecommerce sites out there who shall remain unnamed.

But you do something similar. You do have a product. You do have a customer. Even if you run a library website, your users expect to receive a service from you when they come to your store. They shop, you deliver.

The Reality of it All

You want your users to choose your product because it fits their needs.

You are doing ecommerce.

At the heart of it, you want your users to choose you, to choose your product, to feel good about your brand, to recognize the name you work so hard to cultivate and nurture and put out there in the world. You want to sell your users something of value to them, something that fits their needs. And you want to do it as well or better than your peers and competitors.

You are doing ecommerce.

I’ll stop being so dramatic. It’s actually pretty cool that you’re doing ecommerce. It means you get to use the totally free ecommerce library that the totally free tool Google Analytics provides you for free. Did I mention it was free?

Making the plugin work for you

Now that you’ve accepted the idea that you are in fact doing ecommerce, and Google provides a tool specifically designed with your needs in mind, you need to know how to make it work for you. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as Page Value. You won’t be able to just fill in a form field in the interface and get free data. You’ve got to work for this.

But it’s not hard. The library is just a bit of JavaScript. Surely there’s someone at your institution who can write JavaScript. Maybe it’s you.

If it’s not you, don’t worry. We’re not going to talk about JavaScript one bit. We are, however, going to talk about how to think about your content so someone else can write the JavaScript that will make this solution work. Who knows, maybe you’ll make a new friend in the IT department, because you’ll know exactly what to tell them to do. And they like that kind of thing I hear.

To make the eCommerce library work, there are 2 things you have to define: Items and Transactions. An item can be anything you like: an article, a degree program, a donation, a faculty profile. It depends on what your site is set up to “sell.” A transaction should be a definable action, a lot like a goal conversion; this could be reading an article to the end, requesting info for a degree program, making a donation, or contacting a faculty member via their bio page.

Items are the things you have. Transactions are actions users take.

So, Part III ends there. Just look at your sites, choose a bunch of things that will be items and a couple of actions that will be transactions and let your developers figure out the rest.

No? It’s probably better if we dig just a tiny bit deeper.

A bit of harmless self-promotion

Users browsing the NewCity website looking to employ our services want to research our people. They know it takes the right people to make good websites. That means that our people are an important part of our sales and marketing efforts. While we don’t sell our services online (you can’t put a new website in the shopping cart and have it shipped next day air), we consider our team member bios to be one of our main selling points. So yes, we are the product. And we’re totally ok with that.

So, a user comes to the site, navigates to the team member menu, and clicks on one of our developer’s profile.

Partial screenshot of the NewCity team page

That’s Jesse in the center there. We’ll use him as a prop.

The user come to his bio page, sees his awesome Hulk hands and decide to read a bit about him:

Partial screenshot of Jesse's profile

They continue to read, consuming his entire bio, and when they get the bottom of the page that triggers a transaction. Jesse is the item. Scrolling to the bottom is the transaction. Both of these things (the transaction event and the item) represent the minimum necessary to make the ecommerce plugin work.

A trackable event to trigger the transaction (in this case hitting the bottom of the bio section in a minimum amount of time relative to the length of the text) and a name to assign to the item are enough to fill the ecommerce reports in Google Analytics. But we can do better than that!

Customize all the fields!

In addition to the triggering event, you can add extra info about the transaction:

  • Transaction ID (this is required): we use a timestamp plus a random string. This is probably overkill. In the ecommerce world, this would be a key linked to a database that keeps track of all the transaction info. That’s probably even more overkill, but might actually work if you’re already using a CRM.
  • Product name (also required): give your item a name, obviously.
  • Product category (optional, but highly recommended): put your items into categories. We have four types on our site: Team, Blog, Work, Services. You could have many, many more.
  • Product SKU (optional): this is straight out of the world of sales. Use it if you like. It can add a layer of abstraction if you find you need more categories for more things (I recommend asking your developer if you need more categories for more things).
  • Price (required): you’ve already thought about attributing value to goal conversions. You should try to think of a way to add value to your items. We use the word count for the post. If a user consumes the text, the word count is the price they are willing to pay for our product.

Screenshot of data collected from viewing Jesse's profile

We can see what our most valuable content is in terms of actual engagement. Since we are using scroll tracking with a timer, we can tell (to a reasonable degree) if users are fully engaged with our products. We know what they are willing to buy, and we can promote that.

What you get is something unlike any other report in Google Analytics. Your content, listed individually based on an action you define with a value that you decided on. Goodbye dusty old goal conversions, hello shiny new ecommerce data model!

Google Analytics Conversion Performance report

You now have access to your most valuable content in terms of actual user engagement, not just pageviews. You can tap into that data, make decisions that your users tell you you should be making and actively promote the content that matters to them most.

We also know what categories of content perform best both in terms of what gets read the most, but also in terms of total words by category and the average length of that content. We’re rich in content! If you’ve gone the extra mile to categorize your content, you even get the big picture data:

Google Analytics Product Categories report

What are your products?

What is a transaction for you?

These are the hard questions you have to ask yourselves. In reality, they don’t seem that hard. You’ve already mapped out what you thought were important routes on your site. Look at your pathways and see if there is content on those pages that is worth calling an item. Decide how it should be determined that a user sufficiently engaged with an item to have bought it.

For more in depth technical reading (share this link with your developers), see Google’s dev guide for the standard eCommerce plugin.

And be sure to check back for Part IV, where we dive into Enhanced ecommerce!

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