An Open Letter to President-Elect Obama

Published by Eric T. Peterson on November 19, 2008 All posts from Eric T. Peterson

Dear President-Elect Obama,

I wanted to congratulate you on your victory in the recent election and let you know how proud I am to have witnessed the history you, your family, and your political machine have brought to America.  You ran a Presidential campaign the likes this country has never seen, and I sincerely hope that the honesty, humility, and integrity you showed will set the standard for all campaigns to follow.

When CNN called the election for you I was putting my five year old to bed; when she heard the fireworks going off in my neighborhood and asked, “Daddy, what happened?” I could only answer with a tear in my eye, “History, darling. Mr. Obama just changed America forever.”

Obviously you have your work cut out for you as you inherit stewardship over what can only be described as an “ugly” situation, but I wanted to make a suggestion and plant a seed for the future.

You have wisely announced that you will appoint a Chief Technical Officer inside your administration to bring our government into the 21st century.  On your own web site you state your intention to “use technology to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks” in an effort to open up government to all America’s citizens.

Your stated goal is to use technology to create “a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America’s citizens” and will empower your CTO to “ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century.”

As a member of the digital measurement community with more than a passing familiarity with some of the policies imposed on web sites operated by the Federal Government, I wanted to offer up a proverbial “slam dunk” for you and your CTO to improve the quality of the digital relationship citizens have with our government:

Simply put, allow Federal Government web sites to deploy persistent, first-party cookies.

While I have no doubt about your knowledge of government or your commitment to the Internet as a communication medium, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and explain what I mean by “persistent, first-party cookies.” Using language taken directly from the GAO Report to the Chairman Committee on Governmental Affairs (GAO-01-424, published April 2001, PDF document):

“Federal agencies are using Internet “cookies” to enable electronic transactions and track visitors on their Web sites. Cookies are text files that have unique identifiers associated with them and are used to store and retrieve information that allow Web sites to recognize returning users, track on-line purchases, or maintain and serve customized Web pages. Cookies may be classified as either “session” or “persistent.” Session cookies expire when the user exits the browser, while persistent cookies can remain on the user’s computer for a specified length of time.”

The problem with cookies, as identified by the Office of Management and Budget, was that persistent cookies could be used to identify visitors and “learn about visitor’s browsing habits and keep track of viewed or downloaded Web pages.” From GAO-01-424:

“Although cookies help enable electronic commerce and other Web applications, persistent cookies also pose privacy risks even if they do not themselves gather personally identifiable information because the data contained in persistent cookies may be linked to persons after the fact, even when that was not the original intent of the operating Web site. For example, links may be established when persons accessing the Web site give out personal information, such as their names or e-mail addresses, which can uniquely identify them to the organization operating the Web site. Once a persistent cookie is linked to personally identifiable information, it is relatively easy to learn visitors’ browsing habits and keep track of viewed or downloaded Web pages. This practice raises concerns about the privacy of visitors to federal Web sites.”

While I do not debate the fact that a government agency could tie a persistent cookie to a name or an email address, the connection described here makes several assumptions:

  1. That the agency in question is collecting personally identifiable information (PII);
  2. That the agency in question is passing the PII to the measurement solution;
  3. That the measurement solution provides the necessary functionality to tie anonymous sessions to the session containing the collected PII;
  4. That the agency itself has assigned resources to monitor individual sessions, looking for PII;
  5. That anything of interest can be learned by associating anonymous sessions with identified individuals.

Unfortunately, despite the number of assumptions associated with the theoretical abuse of personally identifiable information via persistent cookies, in June 2000 the Office of Management and Budget  issued guidance that unfortunately all but eliminates Federal sites ability to leverage digital measurement technology to improve the exchange of information between government and citizens.  Again, according to GAO-01-424:

“[OMB] guidance established a presumption that persistent cookies would not beused on federal Web sites. Further, it provided that persistent cookies could be used only when agencies (1) provide clear and conspicuous notice of their use, (2) have a compelling need to gather the data on-site, (3) have appropriate and publicly disclosed privacy safeguards for handling information derived from cookies, and (4) have personal approval by the head of the agency.”

While a few public sector web sites have satisfied these four requirements and have been granted permission to better leverage digital measurement technology, most are hamstrung by this guidance and thus struggle to provide the best-possible web experience.  And while several government web sites are wisely measuring consumer satisfaction using the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, satisfaction alone fails to provide the necessary depth required to identify the full breadth of opportunities available to most web sites operated by the U.S. Government today.

And while I don’t doubt that the OMB was acting in the best interests of the American public when issuing the guidance detailed above, the technology landscape has changed dramatically since 2000 and consumers have far greater personal control over how cookies are used when they browse the Internet.  Consider the following:

Without going into spurious detail, preventing the use of persistent cookies on most government web sites has dramatically limited the breadth of technology available to better understand citizen preferences, stumbling blocks, and opportunities for improvement.  Because they are forced to choose between a limited set of applications that are hamstrung by OMB guidance, an uphill battle to gain approval to use persistent cookies, and doing nothing, many government agencies are sadly choosing the latter option.

Unfortunately, the “do nothing” option hurts everyone — Government employees who genuinely want to improve the sites they maintain on behalf of the public good, U.S. citizens who sincerely want to participate in government using the most convenient communication channel available, and the Federal Government as a whole because citizens are unlikely to continue to use sites that fail to provide a good and satisfying experience.

Consider the opportunity: The Social Security Administration predicts an estimated 78 million American Baby Boomers will be retiring over the next few decades.  According to my sources at SSA, the only way the agency will be able to successfully handle this volume of new applications will be electronically via SSA.gov.

Unfortunately, SSA.gov like so many sites does not yet have the level of detail required to understand where retirees suffer confusion, frustration, and anger during the complicated process of applying for retirement and disability benefits.  Without this information, online applications at SSA are essentially a black-hole for the well-meaning staff working under a mandate to process this unprecedented volume while creating satisfying experiences for our citizenry.

By asking your CTO to reverse the OMB guidance currently governing the use of persistent cookies, you will immediately give Federal web site operators the ability to deploy a far wider range of technology.  These applications include free solutions provided by your friend Eric Schmidt from Google (a very “budget friendly” approach) as well as market leading Software-as-a-Service solutions from great American companies like Omniture, Coremetrics, and WebTrends.

By allowing government sites to choose from a wider-range of measurement solutions, you allow each to select the most appropriate application for their specific needs.  Sites with less experience or fewer resources familiar with measurement can quickly deploy entry-level solutions like Google Analytics; sites with more experience and dedicated analysts can thoughtfully deploy higher-end solutions like Omniture, Coremetrics, and WebTrends.

Ironically your own site, Change.gov, briefly appears to have had Google Analytics deployed, hopefully so your own transition team could understand what those citizens committed to helping your administration are most interested in on the site.  Tragically the Google Analytics code has since been removed, likely because of the OMB guidance.  Fortunately you’re still running Google Analytics at BarackObama.com — hopefully someone on your team found the insights in Google Analytics useful as you redefined how a Presidential candidate campaigns via the Internet.

In fact, the privacy policy at BarackObama.com would serve as an excellent example of how the new Federal Government could talk about citizen privacy online.  In addition to great information about the use of IP addresses, cookies, and consumer choices regarding online privacy, your policy already states:

“We may use pixel tags (also known as web beacons or clear GIF files) or other tracking technology to help us manage our online advertising and to analyze and measure the effectiveness of online advertising campaigns and the general usage patterns of visitors to our Web site.”

I recognize that I may have not made the most clear case for your CTO to revisit OMB guidance on the use of cookies; hopefully my readers will add their comments and cover any ground that I missed.  And hopefully, as you work to resolve the litany of crises we face today, you’ll ask yourself “how we can improve citizen use of government web sites?” and when you do, someone will point out this post as one possible solution.

Suffice to say, if anyone in your administration would like a longer, more detailed explanation of my proposal, please don’t hesitate to call. Like the majority of my fellow citizens, I heard you loud and clear when you said “Yes, we can.” And like many, it was the “we” that resonated in your statement; the problems we face today are far too great for any man, woman, politician, or agency to solve alone.  Only by working together, by bridging the gap between the past and the future, and by leveraging the technology at our fingertips will we begin to appreciate the full potential of America and Americans.

Again, congratulations on your historic victory and thank you for renewing the confidence I have when I tell my son and daughter that no matter who they are or where they’re from, in America we all have the opportunity to be truly great.

Sincerely,

Eric T. Peterson
CEO and Founder, Web Analytics Demystified, Inc.
Portland, Oregon

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  • Brent Hieggelke

    Eric,

    As someone who 4 years ago spent ALL of New Years Day on the phone with the White House Communications Team because their site was “outed” by CNN and other media as <> using cookies in a completely innocent manner, I couldn’t agree more.

    The lack of understanding by almost everyone was embarrassing and the mere existence of any cookies was treated as a plot for a Hollywood drama detecting Russian spies. It’s time that serving the public becomes Job One and worrying about uneducated misperceptions over something that will never harm anyone, gets put to bed. Obama is the guy to do this.

    I have been in the Web Analytics/ Interactive Marketing space for 10 years between my time at WebTrends, Touch Clarity and Omniture, and have talked to thousands of customers, and have yet to have a single one pull me aside to ask me for tips on how to do evil using cookies. But they have all wanted to know how to serve customers better and improve their businesses.

    Brent Hieggelke
    Throttle Marketing

  • http://www.dhs.gov Gwynne Kostin

    Eric, thank you for outlining the cookie issue in a clear and complete way.

    I did want to add a little bit of flavor to your statement that in the face of the uphill battle to use cookies many agencies “do-nothing.” I know you meant no offense, but I want to emphasise that there are many folks who have tried to move the boulder up the hill you described and have been thwarted. In many cases because the decision-makers didn’t understand cookies and how they are used/perceived in 2008. In others, they were caught in a morass of papers. Lack of success is not for lack of trying.

    The American people expect that their government sites are well managed–I look forward to using all and any measurement tools that can help me meet those expectations.

    Thanks, and great post!

  • http://www.webmetricsguru.com Marshall Sponder

    I fully support you on your request and will support it on The WAA Board (at least, for as long as I’m on it).

    BTW, I heard last week that Change.gov had GA tags on it (didn’t check that myself, though) and then heard later, they were taken off.

    I think a dream job, certainly mine, would be to that data and creates insight out of it – but as you pointed out, there are several procedural, legal and governmental issues that need to be sorted out first – and lots of ignorance around many of them (erroneous ideas).

    I certainly believe the Web Analytics Association has a measure of influence here, and I personally believe, speaking for myself only, this is higher priority – to create documentation and frameworks that would support the advocacy to go forward with what you propose on First Party Cookies.

    I’ll also say, while we’re at it – why don’t we try to come up with a position statement on Barack Obama’s Blackberry – how Modern Presidents are hamstrung by requirements made that no longer make much sense – no, I understand Barack’s BlackBerry can be tapped – but there are ways to make sure it isn’t – and maybe the WAA ought to tie both things together as … let’s face it – Barack want’s to keep using his Blackberry … ALOT.

    Hope this helps and you have my support,
    Thanks,
    Marshall

  • http://www.webanalyticsdemystified.com eric

    Gwynne: Auuuugh! Thank you so much for pointing this out — I absolutely meant no offense whatsoever by my comment about the “do nothing” approach and am now sitting here debating revising that entire paragraph based on your feedback.

    What I should have said is that I know a great number of very hard working government employees, including staff from the Social Security Administration, the National Cancer Institute, the Smithsonian Institution, National Parks, and a half-dozen other agencies who are doing tons of great work with the limited tools they have at their disposal.

    And I know as many that, as you said, have been thwarted by the onerous process imposed by the OMB guidance and who are frustrated by the knowledge that they have the knowledge and experience to positively impact their sites if only the guidance would change. This is why I wrote my letter to the President-Elect.

    Again, please do accept my sincere, sincere apologies and know that I am very much on your side in this debate (or rather what I hope will at the appropriate time become a debate.)

  • http://www.WebAnalyticsAssociation.org Jim Sterne

    The Web Analytics Association believes that the use of first party persistent cookies will significantly improve the ability of the Federal government departments and Agencies to deliver enhanced service to American citizens. We further believe the improved service via persistent cookies need not compromise the respect and concerns for the privacy of web site users. To this end, we encourage the development of clear policies governing use of cookies and management of data collected by web sites. For these reasons, the WAA strongly supports Mr. Peterson’s remarks and encourages that they be seriously considered by the new Administration.

  • http://www.webanalyticsdemystified.com eric

    Brent: Interesting perspective! I had forgotten about the incident you reference but for other readers who didn’t hear about WebTrends vs. The White House you can read up at The Portland Business Journal:

    http://portland.bizjournals.com/portland/stories/2006/01/09/story5.html

    Wouldn’t it be great if the President-Elect would go on 60 Minutes and, similar to the way he weighed in on the flawed BCS College Football ranking system, told the American people to “not fear cookies but rather embrace them as the technological advancement that they truly are.”

    Okay, yeah, I know … the dreams of geeks are small indeed. Thanks for your comment!

    Marshall: Thanks for your support. I personally think that Steve Jobs should build the President-Elect a hardened iPhone so he could be simultaneously connected and cool. LOL!

  • http://www.webanalyticsdemystified.com eric

    Jim: Wow, thanks for the show of support! It’s great to know the Web Analytics Association is actively thinking about how our government can better serve the American public and even better to see such a clearly worded statement from the Chairman alongside my call for action.

    Now if only I could get @BarackObama himself to comment on the post we’d be in business.

  • http://www.waomarketing.com/blog Jacques Warren

    In Canada, Public Administration is finally giving in, and more and more government sites are now serving the good ol’ pal persistent cookie!

  • http://www.semphonic.com Phil Kemelor

    Eric – So, is this the digital equivalent to “Tear down that wall, Mr. Gorbachev”?

    Because taking this particular brick out of the wall would do much to help web managers and web analytics folks (at least the ones that I know) in the Federal sector to make the business case that web analytics has relevance.

    From what I see and hear, senior managers in the Federal space are already or becoming every bit as concerned as their counterparts in the private sector about budget constraints and wise deployment of resources. Getting good data to help make these decisions is critical, and going beyond page views and visits, and moving towards visitor segmentation models will make it a lot easier to find out who among the vast audience of government site visitors is responding to outreach, content and applications and understanding how to spend budget wisely on what’s working. This is the type of business case that Federal web analysts and managers that I know want to make. It will be a lot easier to make this case knowing that persistent cookie derived data can help provide levels of detail and accompanying metrics not currently possible.

  • http://www.hellodirect.com Monique Trulson

    Absolutely agree with what you wrote here, Eric – although I do not work in Gov’t, my company does business with gov’t agencies, and we’ve run into issues as a result of the cookies decision. Website technologies require them, everything from our in-house microsites to our analytics package, and a decision to block them seems to me to be uninformed and bordering on obsolete. Thanks for putting a lot of people’s thoughts into words.

  • http://www.webanalyticsdemystified.com eric

    Jacques: Wow, so has the entire social order in your country completely fallen apart because persistent cookies are being used? Are anarchists running wild in the streets? Cats sleeping with dogs?

    Yeah, I thought not. Thanks for the update.

    Phil: I’m not sure comparing the use of persistent cookies and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall is appropriate, but I appreciate the sentiment.

    Agreed that Federal site managers are every bit as smart, savvy, and concerned about the quality of their sites as those in the private sector. What’s more, for many the opportunity is HUGE given the number of potential visitors their sites can impact each year (the SSA is the best example I have, but I suspect IRS, FDIC, and others see huge traffic volumes as well and would benefit from better analytics.)

    At the end of the day it’s not so much about the cookie as it is Federal managers having a choices in the applications they deploy. No disrespect to WebTrends at all; I’m just no convinced that WebTrends is being effectively used in many of the situations I am most familiar with. I think an easier path to diverse application deployment (again, in the context of the GSA Schedule which is another issue completely) would benefit many sites greatly.

    Monique: Well, it’s an old decision but one I think we all agree needs to be re-examined, hopefully by the new administration. Thanks for your comment and thanks for following me on Twitter!

  • Laurie Miles

    Excellent post and subsequent comments. I’m so proud to be a part of this community.

  • http://www.stratigent.com Tim Benhart

    An interesting and relevant article today courtesy of CNET:

    http://news.cnet.com/8301-13739_3-10106214-46.html

    I suspect if the new regime was bold enough to make changes regarding this policy, we would see a significant amount of articles similar to this until there is some modicum of public knowledge on the topic. Seems like an uphill battle, but one worth fighting if public perception of Web Analytics is to avoid the big brother label (see comments on article for some context).

  • http://www.webanalyticsdemystified.com eric

    Laurie: Thanks for your feedback. I’m proud to be part of this community too ;-)

    Tim: Poke around a little and you’ll find the most amazing stuff. I was even more interested to find this article in The Register:

    http://is.gd/8wni

    The central thesis in the piece is that because Google Analytics (Urchin.js) file is hosted externally that any punk with a gripe against the new administration can just hack that file and deface the BarackObama.com web site. There are so many things wrong with this thesis it’s not even worth starting, but the bitter irony is that The Register has both Google Analytics and Quantcast on the site.

    Glass houses, huh?

    Anyway, thanks again to Laurie and Tim and everyone who took the time to comment on this post.

  • http://www.deeprivercommunication.com Rob Ainbinder

    Eric-

    Someone at the White House might have read your letter. For the time being White House.gov is using WebTrends Live! on their recently remodeled Web site.

  • Pingback: Sunlight Labs Reimagines USA.gov | Blogging Hope

  • http://www.vertex-imobiliare.ro/ Imobiliare

    I certainly believe the Web Analytics Association has a measure of influence here, and I believe, this is higher priority – to create documentation and frameworks that would support the advocacy to go forward with what you propose on First Party Cookies.
    Hope Obama will read it.

  • Pingback: GOALLOVER | WEB ANALYTICS ASSOCIATION CHAIRMAN - JIM STERNE

  • Pingback: Barack Obama should not fear cookies! | KlickIntelligence

  • Pingback: Why Google is really offering an opt-out … | Web Analytics Demystified

  • Pingback: Why Google is really offering an opt-out … | Web Analytics Blog

  • Pingback: 互联网集粹 » 捍卫Cookie——没有Cookie,我们什么都没有了

 


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Michele Kiss, Partner

If I could give one piece of advice to an aspiring analyst, it would be this: Stop showing your "math". A tendency towards "TMI deliverables" is common, especially in newer analysts. However, while analysts typically do this in an attempt to demonstrate credibility ("See? I used all the right data and methods!") they do so at the expense of actually being heard.

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Making Tables of Numbers Comprehensible
Tim Wilson, Partner

I'm always amazed (read: dismayed) when I see the results of an analysis presented with a key set of the results delivered as a raw table of numbers. It is impossible to instantly comprehend a data table that has more than 3 or 4 rows and 3 or 4 columns. And, "instant comprehension" should be the goal of any presentation of information - it's the hook that gets your audience's brain wrapped around the material and ready to ponder it more deeply.

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Automating the Cleanup of Facebook Insights Exports
Tim Wilson, Partner

This post (the download, really - it's not much of a post) is about dealing with exports from Facebook Insights. If that's not something you do, skip it. Go back to Facebook and watch some cat videos. If you are in a situation where you get data about your Facebook page by exporting .csv or .xls files from the Facebook Insights web interface, then you probably sometimes think you need a 52" monitor to manage the horizontal scrolling.

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The Recent Forrester Wave on Web Analytics ... is Wrong
Eric T. Peterson, Senior Partner

Having worked as an industry analyst back in the day I still find myself interested in what the analyst community has to say about web analytics, especially when it comes to vendor evaluation. The evaluations are interesting because of the sheer amount of work that goes into them in an attempt to distill entire companies down into simple infographics, tables, and single paragraph summaries.

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Funnel Visualizations That Make Sense
Tim Wilson, Partner

Funnels, as a concept, make some sense (although someone once made a good argument that they make no sense, since, when the concept is applied by marketers, the funnel is really more a "very, very leaky funnel," which would be a worthless funnel - real-world funnels get all of a liquid from a wide opening through a smaller spout; but, let's not quibble).

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Reenergizing Your Web Analytics Program & Implementation
Adam Greco, Senior Partner

Those of you who have read my blog posts (and book) over the years, know that I have lots of opinions when it comes to web analytics, web analytics implementations and especially those using Adobe Analytics. Whenever possible, I try to impart lessons I have learned during my web analytics career so you can improve things at your organization.

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Registration for ACCELERATE 2014 is now open
Eric T. Peterson, Senior Partner

I am excited to announce that registration for ACCELERATE 2014 on September 18th in Atlanta, Georgia is now open. You can learn more about the event and our unique "Ten Tips in Twenty Minutes" format on our ACCELERATE mini-site, and we plan to have registration open for our Advanced Analytics Education pre-ACCELERATE training sessions in the coming weeks.

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Current Order Value
Adam Greco, Senior Partner

I recently had a client pose an interesting question related to their shopping cart. They wanted to know the distribution of money its visitors were bringing with them to each step of the shopping cart funnel.

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A Guide to Segment Sharing in Adobe Analytics
Tim Wilson, Partner

Over the past year, I've run into situations multiple times where I wanted an Adobe Analytics segment to be available in multiple Adobe Analytics platforms. It turns out…that's not as easy as it sounds. I actually went multiple rounds with Client Care once trying to get it figured out. And, I've found "the answer" on more than one occasion, only to later realize that that answer was a bit misguided.

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Currencies & Exchange Rates
Adam Greco, Senior Partner

If your web analytics work covers websites or apps that span different countries, there are some important aspects of Adobe SiteCatalyst (Analytics) that you must know. In this post, I will share some of the things I have learned over the years related to currencies and exchange rates in SiteCatalyst.

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Linking Authenticated Visitors Across Devices
Adam Greco, Senior Partner

In the last few years, people have become accustomed to using multiple digital devices simultaneously. While watching the recent winter Olympics, consumers might be on the Olympics website, while also using native mobile or tablet apps. As a result, some of my clients have asked me whether it is possible to link visits and paths across these devices so they can see cross-device paths and other behaviors.

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The 80/20 Rule for Analytics Teams
Eric T. Peterson, Senior Partner

I had the pleasure last week of visiting with one of Web Analytics Demystified's longest-standing and, at least from a digital analytical perspective, most successful clients. The team has grown tremendously over the years in terms of size and, more importantly, stature within the broader multi-channel business and has become one of the most productive and mature digital analytics groups that I personally am aware of across the industry.

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Ten Things You Should ALWAYS Do (or Not Do) in Excel
Tim Wilson, Partner

Last week I was surprised by the Twitter conversation a fairly innocuous vent-via-Twitter tweet started, with several people noting that they had no idea you could simple turn off the gridlines.

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Omni Man (and Team Demystified) Needs You!
Adam Greco, Senior Partner

As someone in the web analytics field, you probably hear how lucky you are due to the fact that there are always web analytics jobs available. When the rest of the country is looking for work and you get daily calls from recruiters, it isn't a bad position to be in! At Web Analytics Demystified, we have more than doubled in the past year and still cannot keep up with the demand, so I am reaching out to you ...

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A Useful Framework for Social Media "Engagements"
Tim Wilson, Partner

Whether you have a single toe dipped in the waters of social media analytics or are fully submerged and drowning, you've almost certainly grappled with "engagement." This post isn't going to answer the question "Is engagement ROI?" ...

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It's not about "Big Data", it's about the "RIGHT data"
Michele Kiss, Partner

Unless you've been living under a rock, you have heard (and perhaps grown tired) of the buzzword "big data." But in attempts to chase the "next shiny thing", companies may focus too much on "big data" rather than the "right data."

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Willeitner

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Kiss

Josh
West

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Wilson

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