Why Data is Important for Small, Personal Web Projects

To me, small, personal projects are always opportunities. Opportunities to learn, to be creative, and to be heard.

During the past five years, I’ve run and managed nearly a dozen web projects, with traffic ranging from tens to tens of thousands visitors each day. Naturally, larger websites have more at stake. They demand round-the-clock monitoring and weekly analysis. But analytics play a huge role in small, personal projects, too.

With less-frequently visited properties it’s a lot harder to derive statistically-significant conclusions. Data is noisy and takes a long time to collect. Acting on that data is also difficult. But this knowledge is valuable for understanding the people who take the time to watch, read, and react to your creative expressions.

A few years ago I was very much into making music. I performed live and distributed records online. Being an introvert I eventually gravitated towards hiding with my guitar in the bedroom and creating sounds in private. Still, I loved being on the stage, as there is no better way to be with people who happen to like you and/or your work.

Never the less, my public appearances have receded over time. Most of my creative work is now online (as a film photography publication and a community blogging platform, Analog.Cafe). The people who happen to like it and consume regularly only manifest themselves as tiny spikes on the traffic curve reported by Google Analytics. Knowing this little about the audience creates a significant interaction void.

As there wasn’t much that I could do with my analytics I switched to Archie Email Reporting product for casual weekly digests. Interestingly, a few months in I began to understand my audience a little better, or, at least, it felt like I did. I knew whether my work is getting more or less popular, where the visitors came from, whether the people are interacting with my content, and what pages, according to the bot, deserve my attention. All without having to obsess about the data via analytics dashboard.

My resulting understanding of the audience isn’t very scientific. But a rough overview of the crowd does draw a decent picture on seasonal and hourly popularity (like the busy months, or, what time of the day do people visit my site most often). Going beyond this kind of knowledge requires more traffic to come up with statistically significant answers. But the real advantage of being small is to be able to talk to people on a personal level and spend less time data mining (while still keeping track).

Large businesses are spending a lot of money on advanced intelligence, which today is backfiring with harsher compliance requirements (like GDPR) and overall public mistrust. At the same time, small ventures have an advantage in the ability to use analytics reports as a rough gauge of performance and to focus on interacting with fans and customers, something we can do without having to scale.

On Twitter, I regularly engage in conversations, many of which are taken as invaluable feedback or messages of support. I spend my time at the places of gathering for the likeminded individuals, like film development labs and exhibition galleries. All of which have a much greater impact on the success of my small venture, defined by the size of the audience and their ability to appreciate my efforts.

To get to this balance between guestimation and science, automation and personal approach I had to try a lot of different techniques. In the end, for any website that receives less than 5K unique visitors per month this method is perhaps the best. No excessive tracking or obsessive analysis. Instead, a healthy presence online (outside of the publishing platform) and a strong reliance on physical/real-world connections.

With the casual data approach, I get to have meaningful, guided interactions with the community without having to spend time serving and dissecting non-existent crowds.