Webster's Dictionary says the word "analytics" dates from 1590, and it defines the term as "the method of logical analysis." These days, though, it's tough to think of the word in anything but a computer-related context-particularly when it comes to content and marketing analytics. The latter, as digital media expert Julie Blakley describes it, is "data that can help inform decisions about the marketing decisions you make moving forward"-or, as she more succinctly puts it, "to be able to see what's working, what's not, and then what's the best way to move forward."
As a freelance copywriter with the advertising agency Eleven-after spending 3 years with a technology startup in Portland, Ore.-Blakley has a close-up view of the importance of analytics in her field. "Analytics are playing a more important role for marketers and advertisers," she says. "There's just so much more data available now with this digital age, we're able to know so much more about the consumer and their behavior, and there's a lot more to consider and look at to inform decisions."
And just as content and marketing overlap-"Content has always been at the core of marketing," Blakley says-so do content analytics and marketing analytics.
"In terms of content and marketing, you're seeing a lot of analytics-specific tools being used to help people extract value from content," says David Schubmehl, research director at International Data Corp. (IDC). "You have text analytics; people are using that to extract sentiment data, and information about customer feelings and customer perceptions, and that's being used in marketing today around what they call ‘customer experience management.'"
THE YEAR IN REVIEW
What were some of the big developments in 2013 in the world of analytics? Schubmehl feels one of the biggest developments is that text analytics "really became much more mainstream."
"Everybody's embracing understanding social media as part of their marketing focus," he says, "and to really understand social media, you really need text analytics as the underlying component to pull all of that information apart and get it into the format that you can actually use to do the analysis with."
Schubmehl says there was a "much wider recognition in 2013 that text analytics is very important to that aspect of social media marketing analysis.
"I think it was really kind of a breakthrough year for text analytics in that regard," he adds. Meanwhile, Greg Berger, an analyst of client insight and design with Maritz Motivation Solutions, feels one of the bigger developments of the past year is that the tools he and other analysts are using "are getting increasingly more robust; they're able to handle a lot more records. Microsoft is working hard to stay relevant in the space with some of their offerings they're releasing, in both actual analytic performance and data visualization."
Berger predicts, "We're going to see a lot more of that start being folded into programs that most kinds of laypeople outside of the field are comfortable with," such as Microsoft's Excel.
And, Berger says, as analytics tools get "pushed out closer to the end user," it will allow people like him "to spend a little bit less time gathering and cleaning data and crunching the numbers, and more time on the actual interpretive analysis and planning a broader strategy role.
"You start to be able to develop a little bit better and more relevant insight when you put those types of tools more directly in the hands of people who are interacting with that client or with that product on a daily basis," he continues. "If they're more easily able to just look at that stuff themselves then you can play a broader role of guiding that effort, instead of being down in the weeds with the data."
A LOOK AHEAD
So what's next for analytics? Schubmehl says one of the key problems that faced analytics in 2013, and something that will likely continue to be a problem in the coming year, is that "language is still inherently difficult to understand." But, Schubmehl says, there's work being done on that front.
He says analytics developers are starting to do more with "semantics understanding"-he singles out Google's Hummingbird project and Facebook's new Graph Search-and predicts that the text analytics tools "that make use of that natural language processing to do semantic understanding are going to be better off than the ones that aren't."
"It's not enough to know what the data is; you need to know what the data is in relationship to other things, and that's where the semantic understanding comes in," Schubmehl says.
Schubmehl predicts semantic understanding will get better in 2014, "but I don't think it's going to be 100% there."
He maintains that "over time, it will improve dramatically," and specifically mentions MarkLogic, which he says is "building a whole semantic layer" into its XML database products. "That's the way you're going to see a lot of organizations going in 2014 and 2015," he says.
What else is on the horizon for 2014? Berger says he's "really looking forward to the continued development of visualization tools and making that easier for people to use."
Berger says he feels "that's really the key sometimes," in that "you can perform really good analysis, but if you can't communicate that in an effective and efficient manner, it just doesn't mean anything." He points to solutions-such as one Microsoft is working on involving SharePoint and written in HTML5-that could eliminate the need for end clients to have a local version of specific software; instead, they could simply open a browser. He says this elimination of "specialized platform needs" is going to be "really interesting" and could lead to a more in-depth development of mobile presentations.
"Tablets are going to allow for a lot of that more creative and artsy-type presentation of data than just sitting in front of a laptop or throwing it up on a projector," he says. "When you can push it out to individual users on their time and they can digest it at their own space, I think that's going to be really cool." It may take some time, but as tools become more user-friendly and more advanced, the experts feel the future looks bright for analytics.