Instapaper and the Fuzzy Line Between Web and Mobile Analytics

A lot of companies we talk to at [meta]marketer are just starting to devote serious time, attention, and resources to robust web analytics modeling and tracking. Without a doubt, for small- and medium-sized businesses with an online presence, it’s still a new endeavor and not an easy one given the breadth of the gap encountered when selecting general-use measurement tools where business must select between the free-but-flawed Google Analytics and the pricey-but-powerful tools like SiteCatalyst.

That small- and medium-sized businesses are beginning such endeavors is good news. The bad news that we sometimes also have to break to them is that there’s another area of measurement looming on the horizon: mobile.

That’s not a surprise to most prospects and clients; everyone on the marketing, development, and executive team has a smartphone. The surprise comes when we tell them that they should be planning for analytics on mobile platforms even though they don’t have a mobile App.

Actually, surprise might not be the right word. The right word is probably skepticism. And that isn’t surprising to us, since our job as an agency often involves telling people things that they don’t want to hear, and don’t even know that they don’t want to hear. The fact that a fast-growing technology critical for the long-term success of your business is being totally ignored is the kind of thing no one likes hearing and, frankly, we don’t like saying.

An Example

If you are a heavy consumer of online content or your site is at its core a media site – one that publishes news, hosts a blog, posts articles, etc. – then you have probably used or heard of Instapaper, a service that includes a website and mobile app for iOS devices created by Marco Arment. You can think of Instapaper as TiVO for written web content. It allows users to save any page of a website, article from RSS Reader, blog post, or other web content for reading later in a browser or in the Instapaper mobile app.

OK. So?

So if you’re a content producer and use metrics like Pageviews and Time on Page to measure visitor engagement or justify advertising rates, how do you measure the time readers spend with your content in Instapaper? Well, you don’t. Content sent to Instapaper is outside the purview of your analytics.

Instapaper Button

This is where the line between web and mobile analytics gets blurred and where you need to be abreast of changes that affect how you measure success and make business decisions. Do you know how many of your users are sending content to Instapaper? How often? How much content? Do they do it without even coming to your site? Are you losing ground on visitor engagement because Instapaper – or some other app – is changing your visitor behavior? Can you support your answers to those questions with data? If you knew that 50% of your content consumption was happening somewhere you can’t measure, would that affect the business decisions you’ll make this week?

Now What?

In the case of our example, there’s no complete solution to the challenge. Content can be added to Instapaper through a bookmarklet, or directly though twitter clients, feed readers, and other apps on mobile devices using the Instapaper API. There isn’t anything you can do to track how people interact with your content in those channels, so you’ll have to settle and plan for “Known Unknowns.” Though as a site owner, you can integrate Instapaper with your site by adding a “Read Later” button and track usage with your analytics tools. You can also segment mobile users by browsers and platforms, as long as you keep in mind that while the medium may be the message, the platform is the constraint and visitor goals and behavior will be markedly different in mobile platforms than desktop platforms.

At a higher level, of course, you need to be constantly doing the hard work of measurement, analysis, and strategic planning. A robust web analytics implementation is the first step toward understanding how the blurry line between the web, apps, and mobile usage affects your business.

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  1. Michael Summar
    Posted December 3, 2010 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Great article, but I’d like to get your perspective on the “free-but-flawed Google Analytics” note. What, in your opinion, makes it a flawed tool?

  2. Josh Oakes
    Posted December 3, 2010 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Michael, that’s a great question and one that certainly reaches beyond the ability to answer effectively in the Blog Comment format.

    To summarize, though, the key issues are the limits of goals and segmentation, the delay in data availability, the inability to model interaction effects, and limited customization are the constraints that prevent Google Analytics from being a robust Analytics tool.

    And, sadly, these are the tools that a business serious about digital measurement needs to really take their game to the next level.

  3. Posted December 3, 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    I disagree with virtually all of you points about Google Analytics to certain extents. Just like SiteCatalyst, there are ways to achieve each of your points in a way that is useful, relevant, and beneficial to business users. I’m officially putting in my vote to see a larger post discussing all your points in more detail.

    As a side note, I do believe that SiteCatalyst is a better tool … just not with Google Analytics on the polar opposite end of the spectrum. The original post states that GA is “flawed” – implying that it is not worth using … and that couldn’t be further from the truth … especially for small to medium sized businesses.

  4. Josh Oakes
    Posted December 5, 2010 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Well, as I said, this is a difficult forum for such a conversation, but I didn’t say it isn’t worth using, I said it was free-but-flawed, meaning that if you use it, you’d better understand those flaws. If a company wants to take digital measurement to the next level, tracking page views won’t do it regardless of business size.
    A great example of this is the Goals feature, where you cannot even apply existing segments to goal funnels.