Interview with ClickTracks CEO John Marshall

    October 5, 2006

Last week I got the opportunity to speak with the CEO of ClickTracks John Marshall. During the interview I was able to get his views about topics such as the Web Analytics Industry and J.L. Halsey’s acquisition of ClickTracks.

If you ever get a chance to speak with John you can totally hear the passion in his voice about what he does. Here’s how it went:

[Manoj] – How did you get into the web analytics industry?

[John] – I was running a small software company in 1998 (a very web centric marketing company) and we bought a log analyzer product which was the most popular and most expensive product at the time. I hated it; it was very clunky and rigid. It had 2 major problems: firstly, it did not encourage thinking about the website analytically. It was just list of stats, as if the developers had simply written every possible report in the hope the user would find something useful. Of course this made the product intimidating and actually discouraged heavy use. The second was the unnecessary complexity of the data presentation. I recall ranting that I just needed to see where people click on the page, and I can work out the rest – and the light bulb went on. Therefore my origin in the industry was as a small business owner trying to answer: What do people do when they arrive at my website? I realized that no product was doing a good job of answering that question, and therefore a need was going unmet.

[Manoj] – 1998 was a great time to get into the Web Analytics market considering how new the concept was.

[John] – Yes it was, however I would like to clarify that we didn’t actually start ClickTracks until 2000. The original company in 1998 was a different product altogether.

I started to think about the books by Edward Tufte. I am a big fan of what he does, long before ClickTracks and it was at that time I started thinking through his idea of data presentation methods (which he promoted in his book). It was from that I gained the inspiration for the first ClickTracks product.

[Manoj] – What are specific things you and your organization do to help ClickTracks stay a leader in the Web Analytics Industry?

[John] – We practice what we preach by acting as Web Analysts to analyze our clients’ sites as well as our own. We go to a lot of Trade Shows where you’ll usually find me in the booth. There is something about the environment of the tradeshow where a customer or prospect will come and say in very passionate terms: I have the following business problem or I am looking for a product that solves this need. Sometimes those conversations involve us telling the customer/prospect that ClickTracks can solve a particular problem, whereas other times the conversations are more insightful making us think of ways to help solve their pain (this makes us learn from our customers). We are very methodical in the way we add features to the product, we generally don’t add features unless it solves a compelling need and this is a strategy I have learned from my past experiences doing website analysis. We are constantly trying to stay away from feature bloat by listening closely to the problems the customers are trying to solve.

[Manoj] – Focus is key because there are times with analytics packages you are lost when having to sift through so many reports.

[John] – Yes exactly, you obviously are an experienced user. We try to keep the promise that our software does less; we come right out and say that. Adding features makes a product harder to use so you’d better be sure there are compelling reasons behind adding it. Our users don’t have time to go through extra features and we don’t want to get in their way when they’re just trying to get the job done.

[Manoj] – I really like the idea that even you, the CEO gets involved in things like teaching classes.

[John] – Yeah (Laughs), I am flattered you noticed such a thing. I really enjoy doing that because it’s a lot of fun and we learn what our customers are trying to accomplish in their analytics. Through the act of teaching these classes we get to help customers solve these needs and I get a lot of satisfaction out of that.

[Manoj]- What is one of the best business decisions you’ve made?

[John] – Good question, superficially I might say starting the company but I might also say that early on we wanted to present data that was animated on the screen, because I have always thought the brain is very good at interpreting data that moves temporally. However, I am really glad we didn’t go down that path. It leads to products that are useful for entertainment but not for decision making. It was a concept that I had early on and I am glad we abandoned it.

[Manoj] – What makes a good Web Analytics Vendor?

[John] – I think training and support, because you gain so much through one on one training and the process of good informed assistance. The value of the data and price of failure of a bad implementation is so high that a vendor really needs to nail this item. I am very biased to the idea of analysis rather than reporting because if you find yourself only looking at the trends of visitors to your site you are probably not going to succeed at improving your website. What makes a good web analyst and good web analytics package are somewhat related. Interactive exploration is important, for example: 2 months after I have collected my data, can I go back and add another segment (metric) and measure it against my previously collected data. We have designed our product to do that and that’s what we’re known for. It’s this idea that helps a good analyst think and understand why things are happening on a website rather than simply looking at a graph that goes up and to the right. That in turn requires some training.

[Manoj] – Do you have hints or tidbits for some upcoming products?

[John] – Let me say that we will be coming out with API level access to the underlying data store of ClickTracks. We have very good reasons for not releasing this earlier but this has been a frequently requested feature.

[Manoj] – I have some background in software development so I can understand how useful and powerful this feature can be.

[Manoj] – You were recently purchased by J.L Halsey, what does this do for ClickTracks (i.e. any kind of leverage?).

[John] – J.L. Halsey already owns 2 other companies that sell product to digital marketers. At the same time they acquired ClickTracks they also acquired Hot Banana (CMS Vendor) and you can clearly see that there is an intent to build a suite of products that focuses primarily on customer acquisition and retention. ClickTracks is mainly about the analysis of customer acquisition (email campaigns, search campaigns, click fraud). We now have easier access to resources allowing us to grow our business faster. We basically have more scale and reach (we are growing and hiring).

[Manoj] – What does the future hold for ClickTracks and the rest of the Industry?

[John] – I hope that we’ll get some consensus on the terminology and best practices. Web Analytics is sort of like accounting in that dealing with things that can be interpreted in different ways makes for different vendors have different standards (this is something users complain about). In the web analytics industry we don’t yet accept the idea that the data is open to interpretation because I hear people saying that “I just want the numbers to agree” (across different vendors). I feel that they don’t need to agree because there are reasons that company A and company B count things differently. In accounting we readily accept that some things are depreciated over 3 years and some over 5. They don’t agree, and there are good reasons because they are used for different things. We do, however, need to agree on what the underlying standards are, in the same way we all know what a year is. As the concepts mature it will become less specialized and will be part of marketing analysis. I think we’ll move away from the term Web Analytics to Digital Marketing Analytics (or Marketing Analytics).

[Manoj] – Top 5 things you enjoy most working at ClickTracks.


– Innovating

– Talking to the Customer

– Meeting Colleagues at Tradeshows/Networking Events

– Teaching

– Working with very bright people

[Manoj] – It’s always nice to enjoy who you work with.

[John] – Yes and I am very fortunate.

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Manoj has been working in the search engine marketing industry since 2002. He started out as a software developer but now provides in-depth web site analysis using web analytics.

Manoj is also the author of Web Analytics World. Web Analytics is an essential component in developing a successful
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