My Dad always told me the secret to happiness was “to have all of the things you need and a few of the things you want.” But can the same be said for web analytics tools?

In order to measure the intricate behaviors occurring on your website, you really do need insight. But where do you draw the line between what you “want” and what you really “need” in a web analytics tool?

For the purpose of this article, let’s focus on one such feature: real-time reporting. (Debating over all the features teetering on the line between “want” and “need” could take ages).

Where do you draw the line between what you want and need in a web analytics tool?

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I thought “real-time reporting” was the coolest thing since sliced bread when it first hit the market. I mean, I could see live data flowing straight into my tool – no data delay! I could put my finger on the pulse of my consumer! No more waiting for a day or so to see my web stats – it was all there NOW!

But real-time reporting is a a bit like Hypercolor t-shirts and Tamagochis in the 90’s – they seemed pretty awesome at the time, but once you got to play around with them, they weren’t half as awesome as you first thought. (Although, just for the record, Hypercolor “awesomeness” is reversely proportional to the number of randy boys in your high school with hot hands!)

In the same vein, “real-time data” has been revealed to be a costly and underused feature. Even when utilized, it often only provides limited actionable insights.

So why do we want real-time data so badly?

I call it the “Christmas Complex”: you’ve invested blood, sweat, tears and bucks into a campaign or website and you want to see results now – just like presents on Christmas Day. But you need to ask yourself: What is truly actionable about real-time data?

Any strategist worth their salt will tell you it’s risky to make any sort of optimization effort after only looking at a little bit of data. It takes time for trends to emerge; you risk missing them by reacting quickly to every little bump in the road.

Moreover, having real-time data available is an enormous and costly undertaking, one that demands massive capacity in support during peak load times. It’s a bit like energy companies: most of the time they only run at 50% capacity, but they need the extra capacity for those times when everyone uses their AC. It’s not the most efficient way to be allocating and investing in resources (for electrical companies or Web tracking tools), but like it or not, these associated costs get passed back to you in monthly usage fees from your web tracking vendor. Therefore, if real-time data isn’t essential to your business, you can likely
save significant money by opting to go without.

Of course, there’s always a “but,” so let’s cover it here: Real-time data can be critical to the success of certain sites, such as media and current event sites, because these guys care about what happens on their site on a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour basis and optimize accordingly.

It can also be useful as a QA tool, to make sure campaign data is coming in correctly without having to wait a day to see your test clicks. But as long as you know about a campaign 24 hours in advance, real-time reporting isn’t really necessary.

Invest 10% in a tool and 90% in people who can interpret what it says.

What is necessary though, regardless of the tool you use, is having experts able to glean actionable insights from the data you collect. You know what they say: “Invest 10% in the tool and 90% in people who know how to interpret what it says.”

Your data is a story waiting to be told. It can tell you what customers want, what compels them to act and what language resonates with them. In short, it’s the keyword and customer intelligence we marketers strive after in our quest to better reach customers. But a tool alone can’t turn data into intelligence. Only expert analysts can do that.

At the end of the day, successful analytics isn’t dependent on a tool; it’s dependent on having the right people, people who know how to use it and extract valuable insight. A much-hyped feature like real-time reporting might sound flashy and grab your attention, but it’ll ultimately pale in comparison to the value of the human touch and the power of intelligence expert analysts can deliver. So if I had to decide where to invest, I’d choose grey matter over real-time data any day.