Every year's X Change conference surfaces what is first and foremost in the minds of the leading digital analytics practitioners and this year's was no different.

I've been attending the X Change conference since it’s inception in 2006. Started by Semphonic (now part of Ernst & Young), the conference has evolved into a gathering of leading digital analytics practitioners from top brands in retail, financial services, hospitality, media, healthcare and technology as well as leading national non-profit organizations and government agencies. Somewhat different than most conferences, the attendees themselves drive X Change’s content in small discussion groups called “huddles.”

Over the years, the conversation has changed to reflect the growing maturity of digital analytics. Now the conversations are more likely to be about data integration than doing an implementation of an analytics solution. The common thread with past X Change conferences and today is that participants do surface the challenges, issues and solutions that occupy their daily “to do” lists. Here are a few of the themes that I’d like to share….

Trending Up

1. The Search for the Eloquent Analyst

At this year’s X Change, huddles that addressed staffing of analytics teams increased over last year. I think this underscored a trend among larger organizations that are investing in analytics centers of excellence or analytics program offices to leverage analytics talent, create repeatable standards and manage adoption of analytics best practices.

While past year discussions of this topic focused on how to attract talented analysts, this year’s focus took a different turn and instead gravitated towards finding analysts who knew how to communicate to marketers and senior leadership. Asking for writing samples from candidates and providing “storyteller” training are a few of the “soft” skill recommendations that came from analytics managers.

Why is this significant? Those companies who understand that the success of their business is tightly woven to their digital channel are demanding more from digital analytics to provide insights that leadership can use to inform decision making. This is clearly a step up from other organizations that think that “using digital analytics” is “checking the box” on whether or not an analytics software solution is in place -- a state that I still see many organizations having difficulty moving beyond.

2. Digital Data Goes Big 

While the chatter about Big Data had been increasing during past conferences, this year’s conversations indicated that a tipping point from talk to action is well underway.

Both B2B and B2C organizations that have been collecting visitor behavioral data from web, mobile and social channels are adding in customer and sales data and call center logs to build Big Data repositories. Many projects are in the early stages focusing on building data models, moving data into the new environment, data quality assurance and proof of concepts. In short, getting the foundational elements in place. I expect next year’s conversations will be about how the data is being used for advanced segmentation, predictive analytics and targeted marketing program.

Why is this significant? In any conversation about Big Data, the sheer mass of the digital analytics data stream needs to be accounted for in planning the technology architecture, infrastructure and processing. I think this elevates the importance of digital data as necessary for having a complete data set as well as being thought of as critical to any organization’s successful digital strategy.

3. Growing Up

As analytics departments get bigger, serve more people and impact a greater number of business decisions, production efficiency and customer satisfaction are becoming a higher priority. How to achieve these objectives is a relatively new experience for participants in huddles that focused on governance, process and operations.

Organizations that are trying to emerge out of the informality of workflow management through casual emails, “drive by” conversations and calls are looking at ticketing and help desk systems often used by traditional IT help desks. On the other hand, there does appear to be hesitancy among other shops to seemingly reduce the “human touch.” A few programs are evolving with a "customer satisfaction” focus and soliciting feedback on their work through surveys and interviews.

Why is this significant? It’s a natural evolution for analytics programs to be held accountable for efficiently managing intake and evaluation of stakeholder requests, and also obtain feedback to improve performance. While analytics teams tend to fly under the radar in a lot of organizations, taking a proactive approach to professionalizing operations boosts the level of seriousness analytics is viewed by peers and leadership.

Trending Down?

1. Does Anyone Care About Social Media Return on Investment?

Seeking to understand ROI from Social Media had been a hot topic at X Change for the last few years, but not so much at this year’s event. Have most figured out how to determine ROI, or just given up? Probably the latter although it’s clear that there are some interesting initiatives occurring, like showing the relationship between shares and purchases, predicting buying behavior based on brand mentions or developing Lifetime Value models based on levels of social media engagement.

2. Are Tag Management Platforms a Commodity System?

Like social media measurement, tag management discussions used to draw full houses at X Change, but not this year. A few years ago, tag management platforms were considered a “silver bullet” that enabled tighter control and standardization of data collection and other tags throughout multiple websites. Today, with a consolidating number of service offerings, there may simply be less to compare and contrast -- just like the web analytics vendor space.

A Conversation Yet to Happen

What remains somewhat of a mystery is why there was so little discussion about the use of digital analytics to drive product and service development. The relentless focus on marketing and site optimization as the primary uses for digital analytics strikes me as a bit narrow. Maybe that will be a huddle discussion for next year’s X Change.

Editor's Note: Read more of Phil's thoughts on digital analytics in Digital Analytics Roadmap to Excellence