What Is Intent-Based Analytics And How To Leverage Them

From the time we’re children, the importance of measuring relevantly and correctly is ingrained in us: exams are graded based on question weights and answer accuracy; sports team selections are made based on athletic ability and schematic fit; orchestra seats are decided by skill and technical proficiency. The list goes on and on, but you get the idea. Measuring the right thing at the right time is essential.

In fact, accurate and relevant measurement is so thoroughly indoctrinated in us that we become frustrated the second it isn’t clear how a particular result/score was calculated (for a fun example, look at the Google search volume for “gymnastics scoring” during the Olympics) or when a scoring criterion isn’t relevant to the goal at hand.

Given all of that, it’s mind-boggling that as marketers and business owners, we maintain a single-minded focus on one bottom-line metric (sales or conversions) for all of our marketing/advertising/branding initiatives, without taking into consideration the fact that our metric isn’t applicable the vast majority of visitors who are simply not ready to buy.

This is the equivalent of deciding your starting quarterback based on a geography grade – it makes no logical or rational sense. If a coach did it, he’d probably be fired. And yet marketers, business owners and executives alike are obsessed with doing the business equivalent of this exact same thing every single day — only it’s not a depth chart slot being decided, it’s the fate of five, six or seven-figure advertising budgets.

I’m talking about our collective obsession with conversion rate optimization. Focusing all of a company’s marketing/advertising resources on what “works”, as defined by what tactics, content types, and channels are driving bottom-line conversions or sales. It’s a misguided approach. It’s a short-sighted approach. And it’s the inevitable result of focusing on metrics that aren’t relevant to the intent of the visitor.

Why Single-Minded CRO Is Broken

From a high-level perspective, between 70% and 85% of website visitors are looking for information – these individuals aren’t ready to make a purchase or submit a lead form. If you are evaluating the “success” and “value” of those visits to your site by the final conversion rate, you are judging a QB on a geography grade. The metric being used to evaluate the visit by the company (sales) does not align with the metric being used by the visitor (quality of information).

Likewise, between 10%-20% of all site visits are from individuals who are actively considering making a purchase, but may not be ready to do so yet. They do have some commercial intent – potentially enough to download a spec sheet, sign up for a newsletter or watch a product demo video, but probably not a sufficient amount to make a purchase. Again, judging these sessions by the conversion rate is judging a QB on a geography grade.

In the end, only 5%-10% of your audience is actually ready, willing and able to make a purchase. These are the visits you want to judge based on the conversion rate.

So, if your company is using a CRO approach to marketing, you are evaluating a QB by a geography grade about 90% of the time. The result of is a disjointed user experience and a massive undervaluation of your “top-of-the-funnel” channels, tactics and content.

To address this issue, and to deliver a truly exceptional customer and brand experience, we as marketers, business owners and analysts need to fundamentally re-think the way we evaluate marketing success at each stage of the buying process. That involves the creation of new intent-based metrics.

But first, we need some context and a clear statement of purpose:

How We Got Here: A Brief History

Open up any marketing textbook and you’ll find some variant of the marketer’s challenge: deliver the right message at the right time to the right people. It’s a simple, accessible and elegant way to describe the purpose of marketing — namely, to convince your target audience to buy your product or service. In the past, this was a near-impossible task — the best we had was a “spray and pray” approach with TV, print or radio.

The advent of digital advertising has changed all that. It has made two components of the challenge achievable for just about anyone: we have access to previously unfathomable amounts of data on prospective customers along with the ability to micro-target individuals on a global scale. Finding the right people at the right time has never been easier.

All that’s left to do is deliver the right message, which is where everything usually goes haywire.

If your company (or marketing department) is like most, messaging is decided either (a) by management on an ad-hoc basis, (b) by an internal focus group (old-school way) or (c) by the analysts who provide a report detailing which copy/advertisement has produced the most revenue/sales/conversions (the techie/startup/new-school way).

The logic behind all three methods is equally wrong: each presupposes that all potential customers are identical and ignores the mountains of intent data you have on each individual, from their search query to the number of times they’ve visited your website – all data you can use to evaluate how effective your content/advertising/messaging/website is at providing the information (and experience) visitors expect from you!

A Quick Example

As an example, just think about the vast differences in purchase processes between yourself and your significant other (or close friend or family member). My decision-making process lasts about 5 minutes: See. Want. Buy. Done.

For other members of my family, the process lasts a few weeks to a few months. It starts with research. A lot of it. Then we discuss the research. Then there’s opinion-gathering from friends and family while reading customer reviews. After that, there’s the comparison of various third-party information to the research. Once that process is complete, they create a pro-con chart. If the product manages to pass muster after this exhaustive battery of tests, they’ll go to the store to look at it. If it checks out after all of that, they’ll return to the store to buy it.

It’s an extreme dichotomy, but it’s illustrative of the bigger point: otherwise very similar people can (and do) have radically different buying habits and purchase processes. Successfully assisting your target audience through the sales process requires different messaging, tactics, channels and content based on the persona of the customer and their stage in the process.

If all of your company’s marketing and advertising is geared toward someone like me, you’re likely to (at best) frustrate and (at worst) alienate other members of my family. And if you are judging the success of marketing channels/tactics/website content based solely on the ability to convert sales, you’re missing out on golden opportunities to (1) accurately measure the value the content is providing to your company and (2) guide visitors through their purchase processes, both of which create positive brand experiences and increase customer loyalty.

As a marketer or business owner or executive, the task at hand isn’t to find the one message that drives the most sales (that would be evaluating QBs based on a geography grade); it’s to deliver the right message at the right time to the right audience. To accomplish this in today’s digital world, we must evaluate marketing efforts, website content and the like based on its ability to fulfill the needs of visitors at each stage of the purchase or conversion process.

This first requires us to re-think the way we measure success for each piece of content and each message, based on the intent of the user and the stage in the buying process.

Awareness & Mild Interest

Depending on which research company you believe, anywhere from 70% to 85% of your target audience is either unaware of your company/product or in the process of searching for a solution to a problem that your company/product provides. They don’t have purchasing intent in this stage; they are seeking information on a challenge they probably don’t completely understand.

Common sense tells us that messaging to this audience should not be focused on selling them your solution to their challenge. Instead, it should be on helping them to fully understand the challenge at hand and how a solution like yours could help them to overcome it. This intent-based approach applies not only to website content but to advertising and marketing channels as well. For most businesses, platforms such as display advertising, social media and the like should be focused on providing helpful information and general solutions, not selling your product or service.

If your content to this group is driven by what content has the highest final conversion rate, you run the very real risk of alienating the audience by trying to close the deal before you’ve introduced yourself. This is not something you want to do to 80% of your audience. At this stage of the process, the intent of these individuals is to find information, not a sales pitch – so provide that.

Intent-Based Measurement For The Awareness Audience

From a measurement standpoint, if you’re evaluating the efficacy of your awareness ads and content through the lens of a sales or conversion rate, you’re doing the equivalent of selecting a QB using a history grade. Instead, identify creative ways to evaluate the efficacy and value of your awareness ads: Interaction Rate, Awareness Display Campaign CTR, Impressions Per Unique User, % New Visitors (along with Cost Per New Visitor), Social Engagement Rates (minus converters), branded or product-specific search lift, average session duration for non-converting visitors, thought leadership posts read to completion (set an event at the bottom of the page), engaged time on site, etc.

The focus of these metrics matches the focus of your content and the intent of your audience — starting a conversation, sharing information and providing value – not closing sales. If your content is succeeding through this lens, odds are it’s accomplishing the purpose for which it was created and helping to drive lead generation and, ultimately, sales.

To take it a step further, once you have identified these key metrics, create goals in Google Analytics to match them. Assign dollar  values to each of those goals. Then track content and evaluate your top-of-the-funnel “awareness” content based on its ability to drive relevant goal completions. And by doing so through the lens of monetary value, you’ll be able to successfully translate marketing-speak (“we achieved an average of 3.2 pages per session with an average engaged time-on-site of 192 seconds, which ultimately resulted in a 31% increase in demo requests”) into the language of business – money (“our top-of-the-funnel pages generated a monetary value of $5,682 for the company on a spend of $1,234, giving us an ROI of over $4 per dollar spent this past month”).

Remarketing lists for search advertising (RLSA) can also be helpful at this stage if a segmented remarketing list is paired with an intent-focused campaign structure — this enables your company to stay top-of-mind to prospects as they are searching for information about potential solutions. The use of a segmented remarketing list (all new visitors minus converters is a good place to start) allows you to focus those ads only on prospects who are just getting to know your company. By bidding on specific, intent-focused keywords and leveraging bid adjustments, you can qualify your audience and maximize your return.

To judge the efficacy of the ads and content designed for this audience — remember, the intent of these individuals is to learn more, not to make a purchase — by the sales volume generated is a sin far too many companies are guilty of committing. And it ends up costing far more in lost/alienated customers than it generates in short-term revenue. Focus on relevant goal metrics that match the intent of your audience and you’ll reap the rewards of higher engagement, a better customer experience and ultimately, an increase in sales.

Consideration & Serious Interest

The consideration cohort is significantly smaller than the “awareness” group at any given time, but it’s safe to assume that between 10% and 20% of your total target audience falls into this category. At this stage of the process, your audience understands the challenge and is thinking about and conducting due diligence on potential solutions. They have likely already engaged with your company several times – and their return signals that you did something right in the previous stage.

Content and messaging at this stage should pivot from a discussion of the challenge to a conversation centered on how the features and benefits of your solution can help the prospect to overcome their challenge or achieve their goal. Your content for this group could include interactive quizzes, product videos, how-to guides, white papers or case studies. This isn’t an exhaustive list — but it should provide an idea of what content types tend to work best.

Like the content and messaging, the metrics to focus on for prospects at this stage should make the pivot toward lead generation.

Intent-Based Measurement For The Consideration Audience

But first, make sure you are looking at the right sub-section of total traffic: I find it best to exclude first-time visitors and final converters, leaving the visitors who have returned to your site but have yet to make a purchase. You will omit some prospects who belong in this stage using this view (for example, if they delete cookies or aren’t logged in on a different computer), but this shouldn’t have a material impact on the overall outcome.

From this view, evaluate your content based on metrics such as: video views to 50%, 75% and 100% completion; white paper/case study downloads; newsletter sign-up rate, visitor loyalty (frequency + recency), re-engagement rate (remarketing CTR/awareness CTR), search advertising CTR, page views and page depth per session, demo/trial sign-up rate, video view frequency/length, e-mail engagement rate, etc. Depending on your business and website, there may be other metrics you’d like to measure. Get creative and find ways to measure the engagements that matter to your company.

As a best practice, set up each of these items as a goal in analytics (just as you did above for “awareness” metrics) and add monetary values to them. From a practical standpoint, the dollar values assigned should be higher than the “awareness” stage metrics, but lower than the “purchasing” stage. Work backward from your sales and final converters to find out which piece(s) of content and goals from the list above are most effective at making the case for your product to visitors in this segment, then optimize your content for those items.

As above, an intent-based use of remarketing ads and RLSA can be helpful in moving the customer through the sales process while keeping your company top-of-mind. Ads that share new or relevant content, items abandoned in checkout, or new offers provide the information the prospect needs to move through the consideration stage and into the purchasing phase.

An Example of an Intent-Drive “Consideration” Customer Journey

To illustrate the above, consider a B2B SaaS solutions provider we recently helped. From customer surveys, analytics and the sales staff, the company identified that leads who sign up for a product demonstration convert into buyers 65% of the time. Further, the company found that the two primary drivers of demo registrations are (1) case study downloads and (2) watching a product-specific video to at least 75% completion.

With this information, we configured each of these activities (along with some others) as goals in analytics. Then we optimized the content for site visitors at this stage to move them from one goal completion to the next (vs. trying to optimize content to a sale or final conversion).

In the above example, the primary goal (or “micro-conversion”) for repeat visitors would be to review a case study or watch the video. Once that action has been completed, the next objective might be to navigate to a page where the prospect can sign up for a demonstration of the product or review another case study.

Measuring the success of each page/piece of content by its ability to fulfill the role it was designed to do enables you to win on two fronts: (1) externally, providing the prospect with information that is relevant to their intent and their current stage in the process, creates an enjoyable user experience while differentiating your company from the “buy now” competition and (2) internally, this enables you to create a framework that accurately measures how effectively each cog of your marketing machine is doing its job – allowing you to quickly pinpoint problem areas without dissembling the whole thing.

And as a bonus, this framework allows you to assign dollar values to each goal (which is determined based on the intent of the visitor), which you can then use to show the return on the overall investment to senior management.

The Buyers

Continuing with the above example, buyers are the people who have completed the free demo and are ready to purchase now. It’s the smallest group (comprising 5-10% of the total audience) – and the one that accounts for the overwhelming majority of your bottom-line revenue.

For the prospects at this stage of the process (and ONLY for those prospects), it’s OK to fanatically obsess over final conversion rate, profit, lead forms submitted, etc. The intent of the prospect (buy something), the intent of the messaging (get them to buy something), the content of the page (convince them to buy) and the metrics used to determine success are all in harmony.

After The Sale

What most marketers forget is that the job doesn’t end with a sale. In fact, it’s just beginning. You’ve put in the work to refine your content through the awareness, consideration and buying stages; you’ve provided relevant content and an enjoyable user experience for the customer. This is a time-consuming and expensive process.

Now the job is to delight the customer. Thrill them. Care for them. Convince them to do business with you again. And again. And again. To take them from one-time customer to repeat buyer to brand advocate. That’s a topic for an upcoming article.

Until then, stop judging quarterbacks by their history grades. Stop judging your advertising through the lens of final converters. Go through your website as a prospect at each stage would. Think through the metrics that match your audience’s intent through each stage of the process. Configure them as goals and evaluate your channels, tactics and messaging based on those metrics. That’s the recipe for maximizing user happiness and (ultimately) bottom-line revenue in today’s digital world. That’s how to measure right.

The process isn’t easy — and if you a bit of advice on how to overcome your particular intent-based analytics challenges, we are always willing to provide a bit of free advice!