Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Better Website Interaction Metrics for Economic Development

For the purposes of local or regional economic development, Internet exposure of marketing material is incredibly important. However, understanding whether the Internet exposure is actually supporting goals and objectives, and to what degree it's generating useful interaction, isn't easy, and certainly takes more people, time and expertise to work out than this simple blog post describes. But enabling simple visibility of high-level metrics can be very useful, very quickly.

The term "Internet exposure" is used here to encompass all types and methods used by persons to interact with marketing content, from seeing display ads or using a mobile app to browsing a website or providing feedback through a related social media channel. At the very highest level, there are several measures of Internet exposure and subsequent interaction that can be reported with easily-accessible metrics - following are two of the most important for strategic economic development planning and reporting, and ones that can very quickly demonstrate real "wins" to stakeholders and prospective benefactors.

1) Reach and Influence of Message

The message needs to get out, to the right people at the right time, in a way that piques their interest and harnesses the power of earned media, online dialogue and feedback - and beats the competition to it. Therefore, many variations of the message are likely needed (display ad, video, microblog, press release, etc.), the message should be meta-optimized (i.e. accompanied by tags, links, metadata and other information helpful to the channel hosts), multiple channels should be used (website, email, social media) and the message requires amplification and "shepherding" as it propagates and reactions occur.

At the most abstract level, aggregate all messages as a "campaign" for a period of time, and the following metrics are very useful indicators of progress (or not). Note that the metrics are MOST useful if a multi-month trend is shown, and that these high-level measures are just indicators to further validate and explore, not necessarily to solely base tactical decisions upon.

Search Engine Rankings (SERPs) for primary keyphrases - (i.e., search for "Loudoun office space" or "Loudoun commercial zoning" in Google, Bing, Twitter, SocialMention, YouTube, etc.). The rankings should be reported for BOTH positive (intended or unintended) results, as well as very negative (i.e. if a phrase is showing up within a negative context, that result should get lower over time). Focus first on Google, and on keyphrases that are competitive vs. the "sure thing" (i.e. searching for "Loudoun Economic Development" isn't a competitive phrase). Be sure that your SERP counts INCLUDE sites where your content is routinely syndicated, i.e. your content as summarized or posted on someone else's blog or site.

Legitimate Reach - if the marketing is effective, more and more influential people will experience it across more and more sites, social communities and on different devices. Assuming your marketing content originates from a core site, use the website traffice metrics and multiply the monthly number of unique devices * the monthly number of unique referring sites * the monthly number of absolute unique visitors * number of phone calls + emails generated from Internet visibility (that's right, ask 'em how they found you when they call). This is a number that should consistently grow.

Good Social Currency - if the marketing is effective, you'll gain social currency - those are signals (hopefully positive) generated by social media users across their channels, like "likes", "favorites", "retweets", "shares", "+'s". Active, rising metrics here are much more useful than simply tracking number of followers or fans, since many of these so-called fans are probably just lurkers, bots, spammers, non-useful or otherwise - and it's hard to weed them out. Social currency can be tracked per content item and per campaign - to start, simply collect the aggregate (these can be collected individually through their respective services, or tracked by adding Google analytics parameters to the link code)...for example:

# likes on the Facebook page
# retweets of marketing Tweets
# Google +1's generated for your site content
# shares via LinkedIn
# comments via the Blog postings of your content

It'll take a little skill to figure out the most efficient way to collect these, but it's not very difficult, and Google Analytics makes it pretty easy.

2) Goal Oriented Traffic

Are site visitors effectively getting funneled into your macro or micro goals? (Thanks to Avinash for this approach). Are they doing what you'd like them to do, more and more of the time? Are they "converting"?

A "macro" goal is one that pretty specifically generates the right kind of absolute value - for an Economic Development organization, this could be a commercial lease commitment, an event commitment or an application for land use permit. It could even be landing an unpaid celebrity endorsement of the area. It's very hard to directly correlate Internet user activity with these macro goals, but it is more feasible to correlate Internet user activity with "micro" goals - that we agree are contributory predecessors to the "macro" goals.

Taking "biz.loudoun.gov" for example (Loudoun County Department of Economic Development), there are a few micro goals that we can immediately focus on, that very likely are great indicators of intzent and favorable interaction (besides the use of social currency or feedback tools). We'll assume that most site selectors or businesses considering Northern Virginia and therefore Loudoun County already understand that (A) the power/network infrastructure is going to be good, (B) the traffic infrastructure is going to be bad (until the Silver Line!), and (C) Loudoun is pretty close to DC and the Dulles Airport, with very livable, desirable communities and education options.

The highest priority micro goals, that indicate "real" progress towards a macro goal might therefore include:

- Click-throughs from the "Site Selection" page, including the "Site Search", "Incentives" and "Contact our Team" links;

- Clicks (downloads) of the "Workforce & Demographics" document, from the "Workforce Development & Training" page;

- Click-throughs from the biz.loudoun.gov site "Development Process" page to the Loudoun.gov site for subdivision/zoning permits and applications;

- Supply of an email address on the "Notify Me" page (and click of the "Create Profile" button);

- Click-throughs on the Small Business "Quick Start Guide", with time spent on the subordinate pages;

- Clicks (downloads) of the "Fast Track Form", under "Development Process";

- Clicks to the "Cost of Doing Business" page - which appears to be a very important set of data that should be fairly dynamic (i.e. the rates should change frequently); and

- Any click of the "print" button (this probably means more time to be spent considering the content later).

Without digging into the mechanisms of setting and reporting funnel goals and objectives in Google Analytics (or any other metrics tool), just start by adding up the metrics described above and track month-to-month.

So, we could end up with 2 sets of high-level metrics to report out to the general stakeholder community and strategic leadership - this exercise will take a little effort each month, but probably only a couple of hours:

Important Stakeholder Website Success Super Report

A) A brief table of well-known and interesting, but rather useless data that's expected - like total number of website visitors, number of Facebook fans, etc. "Brag Stats" (or perhaps not...)

B) The summary metrics (reported as a weekly/monthly trend) discussed above:

B1. Message Reach and Influence

- Average Search Engine Rankings for top 5 Keyword Phrases = (5 numbers)
- Legitimate Reach = (a number)
- Social Currency = (a number)

B2. Goal-Oriented Traffic = (add up 8 numbers = a summary number)

That's it.

At the very least, running through this exercise as an economic development organization, and then digesting the feedback from stakeholders should result in truly insightful and usable measures and metrics down the road. And here's another nifty benefit - if you settle on the micro goals, these actually can (and should) influence updates to the design of the site! So that more of them get accomplished, as measured both by achievement of macro goals and by the improved "task completion percentage" you're obviously measuring (you do follow up and ask or survey engaged website visitors after they complete a goal, whether they're satisfied or not, don't you?)

Monday, March 26, 2012

On Becoming an IT Solution Architect - 5 Critical Practices

The Information Technology (IT) inventory of HR role and position labels is broad and deep. IT position descriptions may be closely associated with actual black box technology (like "Microsoft Windows Server 2008 Administrator" or "Storage Area Network (SAN) Engineer"), or they may describe roles in a methodology-driven context required for IT success ("IT Project Manager", "Functional Requirements Specialist"). No IT job label is more loosely defined than the "Architect", even with a long string of descriptive adjectives ("Component Services Integration Application Architect").

Taking the "Security Architect" role for example, this person usually does, as well-understood, develop models and abstracted designs (for easier communication) to help build and deliver IT security requirements through engineering methods, constraints, tools and investments. However, does this "Architect" create detailed designs and configurations for security tools? Does this Architect map out and define the security team org structure and responsibilities, both during the build and thereafter sustained operations? Does this Architect take into account (and perhaps influence) security-related money being spent or projects being implemented elsewhere among stakeholders and policy-makers, to help justify or align security design? Does the security architecture include access control designs and processes for the facility, that the IT system or team is housed within?

A more and more common answer over the last 7 years in the world of Enterprise IT Systems Acquisition, Engineering and Operations is that a "Solution Architect" (SA) is the advertised role required to discover, shape and apply relevant, comprehensive contextual awareness during the early phases of an IT-driven program (whether pre or post-award).

This "awareness" is the knowledge container (expressed in consumable plans, financials, models and illustrations) that directly influences how discipline-focused architects and engineers (like the "Security Architect") achieve the right balance of scope, risk, and resources necessary to deliver an intended contribution to the overall IT system. This contextual awareness also shapes the IT program from the perspectives of investment management, project management, services management and enterprise architecture - a large IT program simply can't satisfy its direct stakeholders without contemplating its business relationship with all other (or "collateral") stakeholders.

So, a Solution Architect may be first an enterprise services relationship manager, second a business investment and planning manager, and third a "system-of-systems" architect/engineer (with practical knowledge of the IT context involved) - whose output is shared with and consumed by others as their more discrete focus requires. I'd say the SA is in effect the CIO/CTO of the particular IT investment. John Critchley's article "A Rough Guide to Solution Architecture" sums it up nicely (paraphrased) - "A Solution Architect helps bridge the design gap between business needs and what information technology has to offer".

With such a broad scope of skills, knowledge and responsibility - surely there are professional certifications available to establish, build and prove distinct competency in this role - like the PMP, ITIL-Certification, MSCE, etc. More to the point of this article, how exactly does one become (or develop) a "Solution Architect" as expected and understood by those ready to hire (or promote)?

Having been a Solution Architect (as hired) supporting many large systems integrators and their clients (including Accenture, IBM, Deloitte, CSC), and delivering to this expectation according to many similar "role descriptions" - I'm certain there's no truly comprehensive and singularly warranted Solution Architect certification available to the public. There are industry "Architect", "Enterprise Architect", "Solution Architect" (focusing on a specific vendor solution, like Microsoft, NetApp etc.) and "System Architect" certifications available (i.e. from ITAC, IASA, the Open Group, etc.), but no certifications that truly marry the knowledge and responsibility for investing in and catalyzing (i.e. actually getting it started) a capability, with actually designing and delivering it. In other words, pairing the financial and mission responsibility with the technical. (Not that I've seen yet - please correct as necessary).

This isn't to say that any of these significant certifications of expertise in complex architectures isn't enough for many advertised Solution Architecture roles - it's simply to say that the certifications themselves don't carry the weight of real world experience, where people and money matter as much as a good technology design.

The larger companies (i.e. IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, Accenture, Deloitte, CSC, etc.) are internally building and measuring competency in this sort of role with respect to their own methods and assets, their own clients and service relationships - while the smaller companies hire-to-need or press their most senior system or component architects into service with (hopefully) symbiotic collaboration from the program manager, the functional lead, the governance and investment stakeholders. For smaller companies (and low-margin projects), the Solution Architect is usually either someone who parachutes in briefly, or someone who needs a whole lot of help - either way extremely costly and with little enterprise ROI. (Note to small companies - invest and develop within, don't contract this out).

In most cases, there are really only two ways to first "become" a Solution Architect, and actually to get paid for the contextual advisory role I've described above. Either you're (A) recommended for the role (or a development program) by a forward-thinking and hopeful senior executive (i.e. your benefactor or mentor), or (B) you self-describe and promote yourself as such, land the lucky role and prove it sticks.

Either of these methods presupposes you've spent at least a few years learning, becoming responsible for and delivering positive outcomes across ALL of the following IT business and technical disciplines - this would therefore mean you're likely to have been "in the business" for at least 5-10 years of "progressive experience" (more likely 10-15):

1 - Program and Project Management (they're different)
2 - IT Investment Management (i.e. how the CIO's office operates)
3 - IT Acquisitions (i.e. Proposals, Marketing, Cost Estimating - this is where the SA spends the most time)
4 - Enterprise Architecture (i.e. the enterprise-wide constraints, standards, reference models, templates, reusable assets, meta-directories, etc., from models like the FEAF, TOGAF, DODAF)
5 - IT Architecture Methods and Patterns (i.e. SOA, ITIL, COBiT, etc. - SOA really being required, as well as "Non-Functional" requirements like scalability, availability, etc.)
6 - Systems Engineering (i.e. various flavors of the SDLC, with heavy emphasis of the Requirements discpline)
7 - Business Architecture (i.e. the non-technology elements required for delivery of an IT capability, like organization structure & training, resourcing model, service agreements, facility provisioning, materials and logistics, telecommunications and power, etc.)
8 - System Architecture (i.e. planning and designing the WHOLE system, if even just a little one, like a small website)
9 - Sub-System, Component or Service Architectures (at least a few of the majors, including Information/Data, Security, Integration, Infrastructure, Application, User Interfaces & Visualization)
10 - Programming & Testing (actually having used the tools and environments)
11 - Information Technology Awareness (essentially keeping up to date on the trends and features of IT products, vendors, user demands, legislation, pricing, etc.)
12 - Business or Mission Processes, Functions, Data & Standards (most IT solutions are delivering business requirements, for a particular industry, business function or mission - you should become well-versed in one or a few of these, for example insurance or financial systems, geospatial mapping, inventory management, etc.)
13 - Knowledge Management and Social Media (i.e. knowing how, when and why to share what information with the people that matter)

So, you say, "I can't be (A) recommended or (B) self-certify myself into an SA role without first immersing myself in the above 13 disciplines - but how do I get into those? I'm only a (insert-your-subdomain)-Architect, after all."

My answer is as follows, in these 5 critical practices:

1 - Be aware of these requirements, and grab or volunteer whenever the opportunity presents to extend yourself (and thereafter you can "self-certify" with some proof points, and start adding to both your resume and your labels or tags as applied to online postings). Do remain mostly billable, however, and continue to prove your utilization value (i.e. temper your enthusiasm and extracurricular activities with the reality of what the customer is ultimately paying for).

2 - Find and routinely collaborate with, whether formally or informally, recognized "experts" or very successful people in these roles - especially if they're NOT part of your existing, immediate circle (online groups and communities are really helpful these days) - again, volunteer to help or engage. Ping people like me with legitimate questions or ideas; maybe I know someone helpful to you. If your company is developing an internal Solutions Architecture program, jump on it immediately, or at least get close with those who are building it (for example, I was in one of the first groups of Architects through Accenture's original Solution Architect program many years ago). Your network is invaluable; much of an SA's job is not so much determining the answer, as it is finding verified experts who already know an acceptable answer.

3 - Become an expert in (or better yet develop yourself) a company asset, solution offering or methodology (preferably one that many "billable" projects need)...so much so that others begin to see you not only as knowledgeable in that subject, but as an SME by role - an actual asset to the organization. Someone who is presentable to the customer. Write and publish something (adherent to proper copyright and IP guidance of course), that can be used outside of your project - whether inside the company, on the web, to a client group; it doesn't have to be formal, but does have to be unique and useful (creativity helps a lot as well - Solution Architecture is as much art as science in the end).

4 - Take a stint at leadership - this is very important - you must be able to understand how people and their benefactors work together, remain motivated and productive on IT projects. So although you may be a real gear-head and reluctant to join "management", find the opportunity to be a team lead, do some project scheduling and resource allocation, push some paper and develop your communications skills.

5 - Become a good writer, and present yourself always as a professional. 'Nuff said.

In my opinion, and per my experience, if you follow the 5 practices above, and develop a portfolio of experience that covers the 13 disciplines above - you've graduated as a real-world-certified Solution Architect open for business.