It’s all too easy to get hooked on stats, but analytics can end up being a distraction from the actual business of running the company, says Richard Leyland.

The great thing about working in a digital start-up is surfing the wave of analytics. Our products are apps and a website and, oh, it’s so easy.

We can scorecard, dashboard, visualise and – let’s face it – bury ourselves whole in an infinite loop of witless measurement.

The truth is, I got addicted to this measurement and now I’m trying to wean myself off it. I’d like to share my decline into metrics hell, in the hope that others choose another, more righteous, path.

My gateway drugs were YouTube and Stephen Fry. A couple of years ago, when all we had was a beta app and much chutzpah, we made a concept film and put it online. We then pulled some strings and got Stephen Fry to play with the app.

CIO analytics

As the business grows, the scope for navel-gazing analytics can expand to unhealthy levelsPhoto: Shutterstock

He said some nice things on Twitter, linked to the film and we had a mini viral moment. We had no product in the market, nor a business to speak of, but we had people paying attention, and a view counter that jumped up each time I clicked refresh.

People I’d never met were looking at our stuff, and I could keep track of how many. Some sort of fire was lit within me, and I began to crave the insta-affirmation I could get from these numbers.

Two years later and I’m glad to report that we have both users and clients. Hell, we may even have a business. But the opportunities for navel-gazing measurement have increased 10-fold. Here’s what I can monitor daily, at the bottom of a particularly deep rabbit hole.

I’ll begin of course with Google Analytics. This month I’ve noticed that our total visitor number is a little down on a record month last month. Bounce rate is a little up, but then so is the average time on the site. I spend a couple of minutes establishing that Wyoming is the only US state to send us zero web traffic this month.

Analytics won’t tell me much about outbound clicks, so we use another tool for that. That tool tells me who is online right now. I notice the number is fairly high, and wonder for a fleeting second if Google Analytics is under-reporting our traffic, undermining the whole shooting match.

Then the apps. I check iPhone downloads first. The number is predictable but…

 

…I like to make sure. The numbers aren’t bad. I can see the ebb and flow that result from press coverage and making the category charts.

Next I’ll check the Nokia downloads. I might check these numbers twice daily, mainly because we’re flying high and the number makes me feel good. We’re going well in Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.

I inwardly congratulate the single Chinese person who has managed to download the app, even though Nokia rejected us in China – something about how Twitter was swaggering around, unchecked, inside our app.

These tools don’t advise on how many user sessions we’re getting, so I pull up our session-tracking software. I enjoy the animations, drawing graphs in an instant, that tell me user sessions are up a little and that our median session length is 47 seconds.

That figure may be poor or stellar, but it’s an improvement of six seconds on last month. That heroic and ingenious Chinese user didn’t actually use the app. Never mind. It’s the principle that counts.

I might check these stats two or three times daily, focused on the numbers I already know look good, using them like a balm.

There’s more. We’ve recently been experimenting with Net Promoter Score, a fairly simple measure of who likes the cut of our jib so much that they’ll tell others. We’re using this tool to benchmark before and after a web redesign we’ll soon be launching.

Then there’s the community engagement. I’ll scan my emails for user reviews, see how many people have subscribed to our podcast, liked us on Facebook, followed us on Twitter or commented on our blog. Our community manager reports this stuff on a monthly basis, but it’s just so tempting to have my finger on the pulse…

It’s clear that all this stuff, tracked so easily using free software, is little more than white noise and a distraction from the actual business of running the company. It offers a daily fix of data that’s only valuable when taken across a broad time span, yet it remains oddly satisfying.

But I’m working on it. I’m now on a strict diet of monthly key performance indicators, and just the occasional sneaky peak at the Nokia numbers.

I know I should leave it for month end, but I just can’t help myself. And besides, should our Chinese user ever open the app, I really must be there to see it.

Richard Leyland is an entrepreneur and writer, focused on the future of work. He founded WorkSnug, a location-based service for mobile workers, in 2009.