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There is much debate among analytics gurus about the real value of monitoring the activity of your website visitors in real time. Naysayers will tell you it’s anecdotal information, it’s not statistically significantly, its monitoring not reporting and ultimately you can’t get any actionable insight from it. (If you would like to read more on the issue see, Avinesh Kausik’s blog post on the subject).

Assuming this criticism is valid, then why are marketers so fascinated by real time analytics and generally predisposed to give it the benefit of the doubt? Personally, I think it’s because to be a good marketer you have to be a bit of a voyeur at heart, particularly where your customers are concerned. To successfully market and sell any product or service we must be able to step into our customer’s shoes, to understand their needs, their motives, and their buying decision process. I think real time analytics gives us the felling, at least, that we are peering into the mind of our customer and that any tool that can help us do that has to be a good thing.

So if my hypothesis is true, then what better way to get there than to watch them, page by page, minute by minute interacting with your website? I personally will admit that I find it all very fascinating to observe.

So enough about my predispositions; let’s break it down a bit more clinically and examine some of the practical ways that Google real time analytics can be useful to the typical college or university marketer.

A Definition of Real Time Analytics

Real Time Analytics is a report area in Google analytics that shows you what’s happening on your website, as it happens in real-time. This report area is unique in GA, as all other sections pull reports and analyze historical data well after it happens.

What the Report Covers

Right Now section provides you with the total number of people visiting your website, right now.
Top Referrals provides a list of the top referring websites for the users on your site right now.
Top Active Pages provides a list of the currently busiest web pages on your site
Top Keywords shows the keywords that brought the visitors currently on your site.
Top Locations identifies where your on-site users are located on a map, organized by city .

The Location, Traffic Sources and Content reports allows you to drill down into the visitor data and examine, by segment, the nature and behavior of the traffic on your site.

Practical Applications for Higher Ed

The reports in Real Time allow you to see behavior in the time range of a few seconds to 30 minutes out from the actual click . As you probably know, there are a number of other reports in GA that will break your data down to the hour so if you can settle for that, you are probably better off spending your time there. Real Time analytics is useful to see the immediate impact on site traffic of very time sensitive events and activities. Here are a couple of examples :

1. Monitoring the immediate impact of new marketing or media campaigns – Launching a new recruitment ad on TV or activating a PPC campaign to produce student leads for an under performing department is always a bit nerve wracking as you wait to see the results of you hard work come in. Questions like “Will it generate adequate leads? Should I have tweaked the landing page a bit more?” run rampantly through your head. Real Time analytics allows you to monitor the immediate incoming traffic from these campaigns, for example, to see page views of its landing page or thank you page. If it is not working, you find out very quickly and have the opportunity to make adjustments. But it is important not to over react to your real time stats. Keep statistical significance in the back of your mind before you make too many quick changes.

2. Campaign testing – Although more sophisticated tools exist for serious auditing of campaign tagging, Real Time analytics provides a very simple and effective tool for testing your tracking before the launch of a new campaign. For example, you might review a multi-page registration form, step by step, with Real Time analytics to ensure proper tagging of each page in the form and that your funnel tracking is operating as expected.

3. Monitor the immediate impact of time sensitive news on your traffic – ie social media posts – Track incoming traffic from various channels in response to tweets, blog posts and press releases. You can exam questions like “Where does your social traffic go and how long does it last? When incoming traffic decreases, you can also determine when best to re-engage.

Practical Tip : Think about using the 30 minutes vs. the current visitor setting in the Content report as a global setting rather than just for the Content report. Once this is set on 30 minutes, both the Location and Traffic Sources reports retain the setting and display data for the last 30 minutes of visitor traffic.

Practical Tip: The Actual Visitors on Site statistic seem to have an issue identifying when visitors have actually left a site. Although my experimentation has not been scientific, the tracking appears inconsistent, with the report taking anywhere from 1.5 – 4 minutes to determine and display when a visitor has left the site.

Final Thoughts

Real Time analytics provides a unique means of looking at the intent and actual behavior of visitors to your site. It also provides an extremely valuable tool to examine the immediate impact of your marketing campaigns, and to identify and respond quickly to changes in visitor behavior, errors in tagging, or unexpected changes in traffic flow. Given the interest in this area, I am sure that Google will continue to develop Real Time analytics over time and expand its scope. Stay tuned.

What do you think?

Are you using Real Time analytics to track on your higher ed marketing activities? We would love to hear about your experiences with this tool and to find out where you think it provides the most value, if any. Does it provide you with actionable insights or is this just interesting data ? What’s on your wish list to improve these reports?