New Year’s has never been my favorite holiday. It is no more artificial, I suppose, than most holidays. The choice of a specific day to mark a new year is, of course, completely arbitrary. But it is no more arbitrary than the choice of day to mark a celebration of love, of veterans, of the birth of presidents, or even the birth of a nation. New Years is a celebration of the passing of life through time – a kind of collective birthday. Its deepest themes are all bound up with reflection on the passing of time: from a clock ticking down to a sudden explosion of fireworks (or kisses), to the year in review, to its de facto anthem: ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ That’s all fine. I get it.
It’s the mode of celebration I don’t enjoy. I’m just not a big party guy. Being publicly drunk with ten thousand other bad looking guys sweating alcohol in rented tuxedos just doesn’t strike a chord in me.
Picnics and fireworks on the 4th of July is more my style.
But it’s especially hard to enjoy a New Year’s celebration when times are deeply troubled and uncertain. This feels especially so at the end of 2008.
Even at the end of 2001, a time sadder and at least equally troubled, there was a richness of emotion, a shared national connection that lent the New Year a melancholy but resonant texture. It was, perhaps, like drinking a fine old wine in memory of a friend now gone or a loved one lost.
We have not that resonant sense of connection at the end of this year. We have only the depressing spectacle of deep recession and collapsing industries rent asunder by our own reckless speculation and greed. That, and a humorless, unrewarding nervous foreboding about how bad things will be in 2009.
Such things happen, of course. Economies go up and they go down. Hard economic times are not the end of the world.
And even though things look much worse in the broader economy at the end of 2008 than in 2001, things don’t look nearly as bad in our little corner of the world. For the handful of us doing web analytics in the dot.com era, the collapse of the internet bubble was a full-fledged economic calamity. We at Semphonic lost virtually every client we had. We went from around fifteen employees back to just the two founders (Joel and I). I don’t think we booked a single new piece of business between Sept. 11th, 2001 and sometime in the middle of 2003.
If it hadn’t been for one large client sticking with us and giving us enough work to get by, I’d be in another line of work right now.
So far, at least, 2009 doesn’t look anything like that. There’s plenty of risk out there – god knows. A number of our biggest clients are under real pressure. Some have all but vanished, others are essentially government owned. To think that web analytics spending isn’t being impacted in those environments is ludicrous. It is.
But even though the 2008-2009 recession looks to be much broader and more severe than the dot-com crash, web analytics has grown up tremendously in these past seven or eight years. We aren’t the domain of one highly speculative industry anymore. Companies of every type and in every significant economic sector now care about their web sites. And that means caring about their measurement as well.
Semphonic clients include financial services giants, media titans, social start-ups, non-profit foundations, health-care and bio-engineering multinationals, government agencies, old-line manufacturers, mixed-model retailers, tv-direct specialty retailers, and high-tech electronics companies. Almost every one of these sectors is feeling the strain – even the public sector is getting squeezed as tax revenues fall. But the diversity and richness of this base ensures that there are still opportunities for new growth.
So while things really are bad, web analytics has become a much broader, more entrenched discipline. We aren’t going to go away.
That breadth is reflected in the fact that Q4 was the best total revenue quarter we’ve ever had at Semphonic (though by no means the fastest growth quarter) – and I believe we might even have started more new engagements than in any previous quarter of our ten-plus year history.
Do I expect that to last? Hell if I know. Back in August, I expected us to grow 60% or more in 2009. Actually, I expected us to do that pretty easily. Not any more. I’d be okay if we stayed even in 2009 given the cuts I expect from some of our most affected clients - even as I expect our overall client-base to grow significantly. I’d be happy enough if we can grow revenue 15-20% - results that five months ago I would have considered awful. Maybe we'll still do quite a bit better than that.
But even being flat is a far cry from what happened to us in the dot-com crash.
So are we better or just luckier than we were then?
I’d like to believe it’s at least some of both. But I wouldn’t underestimate the luck involved.
It doesn’t matter how good a swimmer you are when a tsunami hits. We could have been the equivalent of Michael Phelps in web analytics in 2001 (we weren’t) and it wouldn’t have made any difference. We still would have been swamped beneath the tidal wave.
Our job – web analytics - is all wrapped up with chance, causation and randomness. Sorting these out is the essence of good measurement. And, as I’ve said often before, it is the fundamental genius and failing of people to see patterns and causation in everything – even where chance, chaos and randomness actually rule. Nowhere is this more evident than in our evaluation of business (and CEO) success or failure.
How many of the top CEOs at now vanished or government owned banks and investment firms were called geniuses? Until they weren’t. Did they suddenly get stupid or did all of us suddenly get smarter? Or neither.
Neither of course.
I’m sure there are a few real geniuses out there in the world of business. I’d guess Steve Jobs is one. Bill Gates is probably another. Maybe Sam Walton was one. But most CEO’s are just pretty smart, very hard-working, often very fortunate and always politically very capable men and women. That’s not so bad, but it isn’t quite genius either. Luck does matter.
2009 may turn out to be every bit as bad as we all fear. It may not. Much that we can’t control will determine a great deal about our fortunes and success in the next year. But, of course, a great deal is also up to us.
Part of the reason web analytics is so much more important and entrenched than it was in 2001 is exogenous to us as a community. The growth of the online channel has made what we do inherently much more important. For the web analytics community, that’s just luck.
But at the same time, our core tool vendors have dramatically improved the quality of the measurement tools we have to work with. Other vendors have opened up whole new areas for actionable and meaningful measurement around testing, behavioral targeting and opinion research. And we have all helped to significantly advance the practice of measurement and analytics – making it more mature, meaningful and useful to the enterprise.
At the same time, we as a community – have been very successful evangelizing the role of measurement; beginning what may prove to be a tectonic shift in the way marketing is conducted.
That’s not luck. And it is a big part of the reason why we can at least hope to ride out 2009 without too much damage.
As a community, we can, should and often do, disagree. But we share a common view of measurement as a fundamental part of good marketing and good business, and we share a common interest in the success of our community. It is not just Omniture or Unica, not just Semphonic or Stratigent, not just Avinash or Eric Peterson who have helped our community grow. It is all of us.
So here is a wish for everyone in our community.
Good luck for 2009!