Data is everywhere these days.  It’s common (depending on your social circles I suppose) to hear folks debating the proper use of data or hammering home the importance of website analytics.

This surge in popularity is well deserved.  Data is a crucial component of measuring website success. But with the growth in accessibility to data comes the need to sift through increasingly complex quantities of it.  As the sea of data consistently grows, it’s becoming easier to get caught up in the current of your nonprofit’s data and end up veering off course.

Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean you should care about doing so.  If you pour your energy into everything that’s measurable you’ll never actually get anything done.

Instead, determine what metrics matter and focus on getting really good at measuring them.

Knowing What to Focus On

The specific metrics you use to gauge success will vary based on your website goals.  But with many nonprofits these will often include financial goals (such as donations made through the website) and community outreach goals (such as volunteer signups or support requests).

Think of those metrics that you’d go home smiling about if they improved.  Or the ones that would keep you up at night if they worsened.  These are the ones you’ll want to focus on tracking.  These are the ones that should become your primary focus.

Knowing What Not to Focus On

Just as important as figuring out the right data to track is knowing which data not to focus on.

Many organizations place a lot of weight on website visits.  But visits have little value in and of themselves.  If your website visits went down 70% but your online donations went up 300% how would you feel?  Probably pretty excited.  What if your visits went up 300% but donations fell 70%?  Probably not quite as thrilled.

There’s nothing wrong with tracking a wide variety of website metrics.  But tracking and focusing on are two different things.

You’ll likely track a lot of data that doesn’t have inherent value in and of itself.  But if you spend time focusing on a piece of data, make sure you can justify its importance.  If it doesn’t have intrinsic value make sure you can explain how it supports something that does.

Let’s use Pages per Visit as an example.  The number of pages a user visits on your website has little value in its own right.  But if you calculate that a person who visits at least five pages on your website is 30% more likely to donate to your nonprofit, it starts to matter a whole lot more.

Questions to Ask Yourself When Determining What to Focus On

When figuring out what data to pay attention to, there are a few questions that can be helpful:

  • If this piece of data goes up, does it (by itself) help your organization better fulfill your mission?
  • If it doesn’t help you better support your mission, can you find a correlation between it and a metric that does help you fulfill your mission?
  • If this metric went down by 70% this month, would it be cause for alarm?
  • If this metric improved by 300% this month, would it be cause for a celebration?
  • Would you be willing to sacrifice in other areas to see this area improve?

If you answered “YES” to all (or almost all) of these questions, you’re likely on to a pretty important piece of data.

If you answered “NO” to most of these questions, or had to think about it pretty hard to come up with a “YES,” you’re probably facing a secondary piece of data.  As discussed above, some secondary data is still helpful to track, but don’t hang your hat too firmly on it.  Its main function is to serve as a support for your primary metrics that truly matter.

Data Folks You Should Follow

If you’re into the world of nonprofit data, I’d recommend you follow these three.  They’re all pretty awesome:

Lucy Bernholz – Lucy talks a lot about the role that “big data” can (and should) play in the social space, today and into the future.

Beth Kanter – Beth focuses on the way nonprofits can be “data informed” and utilize social media in a measureable, calculated way.

Do you have any folks to add to this list?  Or any thoughts on how nonprofits should be approaching website analytics?  Maybe a story about how data has worked for your organization?  I’m always happy to discuss data (yeah, I know how cool that makes me sound) so get to it in the comments below.

Image courtesy of Gavin Brogan, Flickr