Top 10 Tips: Advance Your Career in Digital Analytics

Are you interested in finding a job in digital analytics?  Do you want to become a leader in web analytics?  Then read on.

Here are lessons learned from two people that have been in the field for a few years.  One as an analytics practitioner (Peter Sanborn, Microsoft), and the other an analytics staffing professional (Corry Prohens, IQWorkforce).

Enjoy and send us your feedback.

1. Have a Career Plan

Would you invest in a business that didn’t have a business plan?  Why try to build a career without a career plan?

What are your top 5 priorities?  Short term, intermediate and long term goals?  How can you get there if you don’t know where you are going?  Your career plan should include:

  1. Goals
    1. Short (12 – 18 months)
    2. Intermediate (18 – 36 months)
    3. Long-term
  2. Areas for improvement
  3. Learning regimen
    1. Reading materials:  books, blogs, etc.
    2. Classes / training
    3. Podcasts
    4. Events
    5. Certifications

Modify as needed, but stay on track.

You have to manage both the strategy and execution of You, Inc.  Continue to modify your career plan based on new knowledge, new experience and changes in the professional landscape.  But don’t get paralyzed in the strategy.  Do things.  Learn by experience. The changes to your strategy will become clear enough.  Adjust and then go back to work… focusing on execution.

If you are focused on executing your strategy you are much less likely to be thrown off course by every flavor of the month opportunity that comes along.

The sheer volume of career opportunities can be dizzying for a web analyst.  If you have a career plan you stand a much better chance of objectively evaluating these as they arise.  Does the opportunity fit your plan?  Does it get you closer to your goals?  If not, move on.

Similarly, having a plan allows you to be proactive in identifying new opportunities once you have accomplished your goals in your current position.

2. Build Your Personal Brand

Build Your BrandThe simple truth is that companies hire brands at the manager and director levels.

Yes, they hire skills, experience, motivation and fit factors… but having a strong personal brand in the analytics space is a huge part of landing senior level positions.

For the purposes of this article we will leave alone the issue of whether this is right or wrong and focus on why this is true and what you can do to build your brand.

Why do companies hire strong personal brands?  Because analytics groups need credibility with clients in order to be successful.  The clients can be external clients, as is the case for agencies and consultancies… or they can be internal stakeholders.

If the executive in charge of analytics has a strong personal brand clients are more likely to buy what the group is selling.  If your clients are not buying your analysis or your analytical services, it really does not matter how good you are at your job.  You are not going to move the needle.

You have to gradually build the You, Inc. brand as you build your skills and experience.  Here are a few ways to do this:

  1. Get active in social media. 
    1. Answer other analytics practitioners’ questions
    2. Publicize your wins (when appropriate)
    3. Comment on trends
    4. Share articles
    5. Build a network and a following on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn
  2. Attend Conferences
    1. eMetrics, Omniture Summit and XChange are all very good but they are expensive if your company won’t pay.
    2. ACCELERATE, Keystone Speaker Series and WAA Symposiums are great bang for the buck and they are all 1-day events so you don’t have to use up a lot of PTO.
    3. Web Analytics Wednesdays are great for networking and could be low hanging fruit for speaking engagements if you have some interesting analysis to share.
    4. Seek out the people that you know from social media and establish real world relationships.  Talk shop.  Share what you know.
  3. Join the WAA:  The best $199 you can spend on your career every year.  Per our discussion in “Join The Tribe” below, you reap what you sow when it comes to the WAA.

We did a blog post a couple of years ago entitled, “What is Your Personal Brand Score (PBS)?” that was a more comprehensive look at this issue.

3. Strengthen your right brain

According to the American psycho-biologist Roger W Sperry, the right side of the brain powers creativity while the left powers analytical thinking.  Analytics professionals tend to have brains that lop-side to the left.  However, analysts who are both analytical AND creative are a rare, and highly valued, breed.

This is where analytics and graphic design meet.  It’s also called infographics.

The first ever infographic is credited to this Charles Minard chart showing the losses in men, their movements, and the temperature of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign.

Clearly this is before the days of Photoshop, but if you spend more than ten minutes with the graphic, you can’t help but understand the Russian campaign in much more profound ways.


So how can you strengthen your right brain?  On the far end of the far out spectrum, you could take an art class or some form of creative training that has nothing to do with analytics.  On the closer in end of the spectrum, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte, is a time-honored classic that serves as the foundations for data visualization techniques (Tufte’s bashing of the overuse of Microsoft PowerPoint is one blog author’s favorite piece).

4. Be a good therapist

Analyze ThisIt’s no surprise that the first Hollywood box office smash with a derivative of the word analysis was, “Analyze This”, a comedy about a psychiatrist whose number one-patient is an insecure mob boss.

What you’ll learn from this movie is the #1 rule in therapy:  go to where your patient is.  This is an important rule for business analytics as well.

So how do you adopt this lesson?  That’s easy – go to where your stakeholder is.  Whether your stakeholder is the CEO or a junior marketing manager, the principle is the same.  Start the discussion about their business objectives.  Where do they think the business should go?  What’s their #1 concern?  What business questions do they desperately need answers to and how would those answers inform their strategy and actions?

Start there and build your analysis around what’s concerning to them.  All too often, analysts mine data for “the answer” only to find they were asking the wrong question in the first place.  Starting where your stakeholder is can help to avoid this.

It’s also a great way to build trust and respect.

5. Join the Tribe

Join a TribeEverywhere that IQWorkforce travels in the country there is a real enthusiasm and passion for the power and potential of digital analytics.  Most of the people in our field have a passion for this stuff.  They are eager to share what they know and they are eager to be recognized by their peers for their knowledge and accomplishments.  Your career will benefit enormously if you take an active role in this discussion.

Quick anecdote:  A colleague from one of the analytics vendors recently said to me that he didn’t know if Jim Sterne (WAA Chairman and Founder of eMetrics) liked him or not.  I replied, “If you are good for web analytics then Jim Sterne likes you.”

In most professional communities the professionals fight for a bigger slice of the pie.  In the digital analytics community the focus is primarily on growing the pie.

The Jim Stern’s of the world will see to it that any investments that you make in your professional community yield an excellent return.  Let’s break down the ROI.  First we will focus on the “I”.  How can you invest in the digital / customer analytics community?  Here are just a few ideas:

  1. Become active in the WAA
    1. Local chapters
    2. Symposiums
    3. Task Forces
    4. Committees
    5. WAA LinkedIn Group
  2. Become active in Web Analytics Wednesdays as an attendee, host or presenter / sponsor
  3. Become a mentor or a student in the Analysis Exchange
  4. Blog and share your knowledge
  5. Yahoo! Web Analytics User Group:  Ask and answer questions, add value to the discussions

Now let’s look at the Return that you get on these investments:

  1. Knowledge-base:  building a professional network where you can get help with technical and business problems that you come across in your career is hugely important.
  2. Personal brand building:  as your career progresses, having a strong personal brand in your professional community is vital (see above).
  3. Visibility:  Whether you live in a major metro area or a smaller market, you want your work and your accomplishments to be recognized.
  4. Skills:  Being active in your professional community creates opportunities for developing skills that you may not get in your job.  For example:
    1. Leadership skills: you could lead initiatives for the WAA, manage budgets, manage resources, etc.
    2. Public speaking skills
    3. Political skills

6. Be a Channel Surfer

Ride The SurfAll of the more mature analytics organizations are at some stage of looking at their customer data across multiple channels.  It seems clear that this is the future…  When you take insights from your digital channels and combine it with all of the other information that you know about your customer, exponentially bigger insights ensue.  Bigger questions are answered.

Sure, there are still companies that are just starting to implement Omniture, but they are the laggards.  The future is clearly cross-channel digital and customer analysis.

Analysts that have experience solving business problems by mixing and matching data from various sources are in great demand at the moment.  As this trend enters the mainstream we expect the demand for this profile to hockey stick upward.

It really does not matter where you start… as long as you are looking at some kind of data that helps an organization understand their customer, marketing or audience.  You should become an expert on your data and then start to complement with data from other sources.

If your job does not allow you to expand your data universe, there are many opportunities outside of your job where you can gain experience in other channels.  For example, if you are working in the offline side of a business and would like to get some digital experience, you can check out:

  1. Analysis Exchange:  Analysis Exchange provides free digital analytics consulting to non-profit organizations.  They do this by pairing an experienced analyst (a “mentor”) with a newbie that wants to learn by doing digital analytics.  It is a 3-way-win.  The student gets hands-on experience, the non-profit gets free digital analytics expertise and the mentor gets a warm and fuzzy feeling.
  2. Facebook Insights:  Is there any trend in digital that is bigger than social media?  Facebook presents potentially game changing marketing and branding opportunities for organizations and individuals that use it intelligently.  “Facebook Insights” is a suite of dashboarding and analysis tools that are free and built into the platform.  Create a fan page or two, market them and start measuring and analyzing.  Maybe you can even take a page out of the Analysis Exchange’s book and help out a non-profit or small business in your area with their social media marketing and analysis.
  3. Google Analytics:  There is no shortage of training courses – online and in classroom – for GA.  They are all pretty cheap and they will all get you started measuring web traffic.  Make your own site or your own blog and start measuring.

If you are already doing digital analytics and you want to expand your skill set into other channels, you should consider learning about:

  1. SAS:  Analysts have been mashing together data sets using SAS since the 1970’s.  SAS offers a combination classroom + eLearning + certification course for about $2,500.  They also have loads of user groups, events and resources that are either free or very inexpensive.  You don’t have to become a SAS programmer (although that certainly would not hurt your career).  You just have to understand how to use the tools to combine, manipulate and analyze data.
  2. SQL:  Many of these data sources are being pulled together into data warehouses.  You don’t have to become a data warehouse architect… But you can definitely open some doors in your career if you can query, join and transform data in relational databases.

7. Get Political

BrandoUgh.  Ok we said it.  This is the ugly truth of working with human beings.  Yes, life would be easier if our stakeholders were border collies and easily trained to shake and sit.  But, it’s humans we work with and that particular species is political by nature.

So, what does it mean to get political?  First understand where true power rests in your organization.

Is your company driven by engineers, marketers, sales, operations, finance?  Each company will be different, but be assured one of those groups will sway more cultural power over the rest and the better you understand which one it is, the more effectively you can position yourself, your team, and your analysis.

In the good old days, it may have been enough to convince the boss of your bright idea and then sit abck and watch the idea cascade down through the ranks.

Today?  Not so much.

Most big companies are highly matrixed organizations, which is a polite way of saying that nobody is really in charge.  Since there is no such thing as absolute authority in the modern business enterprise, your influencing strategies and skills are essential and, yes, that means getting political and being keen to where true power rests in your company.

8. Understand Statistics – Know Your Numbers

It’s easy to forget, but statistics is the foundation for everything we do.  We deal with averages, rates, and percentages with the same regularity as a gourmet chef deals with pepper, oregano, and paprika.

Web analytics vendors have done such a great job of baking these formulas into the tools we use, that we don’t even have to think about it.  This is great.  It makes our lives easier so we can focus on analyzing the numbers rather than crunching them.

The problem arises though when we get so familiar with statistics that we start to lose sight of the underlying math.

For instance, how well do you understand the concept of probability curves and margins of error?  These are probably not things you have to deal with every day (at least we hope not), but these concepts are deeply embedded into the numbers you report every day.

Normal Distribution

Why is this so important?  Well, imagine at your next big presentation your CFO says something like this, “Well this is very interesting and I’m compelled by your insights here, but what is the margin of error of data point x and how could that impact your conclusions?”


This is when you’ll be glad you brushed up on basic statistical concepts so you can utter a confident and accurate answer.

Of the mountain of resources out there, here’s a good place to start:

9. Make “motivated reasoning” your friend not your enemy

This fact can come as a shock to some analysts:  humans aren’t rational and don’t base their decisions on data alone.

Good lord, we’re screwed.  (But wait – there’s help.)

To understand humans hate/love relationship with data you have to first understand the concept of Motivated Reasoning.  This concept explains how emotions weigh heavily in all of our decisions.  There is a great article in Mother Jones of all places; this excerpt describes motivated reasoning well:

The theory of motivated reasoning builds on a key insight of modern neuroscience (PDF): Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call “affect”). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we’re aware of it. That shouldn’t be surprising: Evolution required us to react very quickly to stimuli in our environment. It’s a “basic human survival skill,” explains political scientist Arthur Lupia of the University of Michigan. We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.

Actionable InsightsThe Mother Jones article applies the theory of motivated reasoning to politics, but it is equally applicable to the world of business and analytics.  Quite frankly, it doesn’t matter how good or accurate your analysis is, if you’re presenting information that could be perceived as threatening, it will get pushed away (and you with it).

So, what are some strategies for combatting motivated reasoning?  First, you have to be willing to meet your stakeholders somewhere in the middle.  You can throw insights at your stakeholders all day long, but if it doesn’t align with their preconceived notion of reality, it’s not likely to be acted upon.

This isn’t too imply that your data should be used as a drunken man uses lamp posts – for support rather than illumination (Andrew Lang), but it is important to find that middle ground where data will be put into action.

If you do find that the facts fly in the face of your stakeholders agenda, certainly don’t just brush the data under the rug.  But, before confronting your stakeholders with unwelcome data, be aware of the forces of motivated reasoning and think ahead of time about how to counteract them.

10. Do That Voodoo That You Do

There is only one Adam Greco.  There is no point in trying to become him.  Everybody in this space brings a unique mix of strengths, experience, skills, worldview, motivations, etc.  There are a million different ways that someone can have a great career in digital analytics.

There are tons of opportunities for people that have great communication skills:  selling and presenting insights… but there are also tons of back office positions.

There are tons of opportunities for people that have great technical skills: implementing complex analytics systems… but there are tons that are not technical at all.

There are tons of opportunities for people that have great quantitative skills:  modeling data and doing statistical analysis on “big data”… but there are tons that don’t require any quant skills.

Here are the career paths of some of the top people in the space:

BS in Environmental Geology > Geologist > Web Designer > Senior Web Analyst > Senior Manager Web Analysis > VP of Analytics for Semphonic

BS in Computer Science & MBA > ERP Consultant > Omniture Consultant > BI Analyst > Director of Analytics for HP > Consultant for CNN > CTO for Keystone Solutions

BS in Marketing > Training Manager > Research Director > Digital Marketing Consultant for WebSideStory, VP of Research & Analytics for MTV

BS in Computer Science . Staff Engineer for Sun Micro > Product Development Lead > Independent Consultant > Director of Analytics for Yahoo! > VP of Analytics for eBay

BA in English Literature > Sales Manager for NetIQ > Director of Sales for Webtrends > VP of Sales at TouchClarity > VP of Sales Webtrends > CEO Webtrends

BS in Mechanical Engineering > Customer Service for DHL > Business Analyst > Senior Manager of Analytics for DirecTV > Director of Analytics for Intuit > Avinash

I think that the most interesting thing about these career paths is how diverse they are.

If you want to be a management consultant, an investment banker or a partner in a big law firm there is a standard career path that you pretty much have to follow.

If you want to be a digital / customer analytics executive you have to be smart, hard working and passionate about your profession.  You can work your way to the top YOUR way.

About the Authors

Peter Sanborn (linkedin, twitter)

Peter SanbornPeter Sanborn has been in the digital marketing industry for the past 10 years. In his current role, he is the Director of Digital Analytics at Microsoft where he manages a team of analysts.

In addition to practicing digital marketing and web analytics daily, Peter serves as the president of the Web Analytics Association.

Corry Prohens (linkedin, twitter)

Cory ProhensCorry Prohens is President of IQ Workforce, the leading staffing company for the digital and customer analytics community.  He is also Chairman of the Web Analytics Association’s Career Development Task Force.


7 thoughts on “Top 10 Tips: Advance Your Career in Digital Analytics

  1. Excellent article gentlemen! Guess I better brush up on some more statistics. Love that Andrew Lang quote and will definitely try to use in an upcoming presentation 🙂

  2. Hi Team,

    Excellent Article. Its very Inspiring. Thanks to the Web Analytics Community. I have got a Job as a Web Analyst after being a student at Analysis Exchange.

    Still I feel there are miles to go, learn and contribute.

    @Corey Prohens, You are doing an excellent work..!!

  3. Thanks Peter,

    This is a great article and to the point. I personally need to create my personal Brand (this reply is the first attempt 🙂 ).

    Thanks again and looking forward to more articles like this.
    Rajat Khatri

  4. Great article – Probably one of the most analytical plans to advance your career that I’ve seen. In addition to the tips above, I would recommend joining an Expert Network. It’s a great way to showcase your talents while building your network and getting your feet wet in consulting.

  5. Great article guys. High quality stuff. As a newbie in the industry, I really appreciate this kind of guidance. Thanks!

  6. Excellent article, Peter and Corry. Even for someone who’s been playing in the field for many years, this article serves as a good reminder. Really appreciate the time you put in to write this article.

  7. ………..
    “…….> Avinash” 🙂 I love it!

    Thanks for an excellently comprehensive and organized reminder to manage our careers more deliberately!

    To chime in with what was said, one huge reason I love being in this space is that it really allows one to have the flexibility to play to one’s own strength/love (e.g. technical, statistic, communication, etc. as mentioned). During my personal journey I’ve found my passion for behavioral economics and design, and they fit in beautifully into my path down the A/B/MVT experimentation analysis road.

    Cory, a personal thank you for your advice a couple of years ago when we met at an Austin WAW. You said to find my direction and specialize. It makes a lot of sense and it takes a lot of self knowledge. I’m really glad I found what I love and am growing professionally in the right direction every day. Cheers! 🙂

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