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What is Real User Monitoring?

Editorial note: I originally wrote this post for the Monitis blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, have a look around at their assortment of monitoring solutions.

Perhaps you’ve heard the term “real user monitoring” in passing.  Our industry generates no shortage of buzzwords, many of the them vague and context dependent.  So you could be forgiven for scratching your head at this term.

Let’s go through it in some detail, in order to provide clarity.  But to do that, I’m going to walk you through the evolution of circumstance that created a demand for real user monitoring.  You can most easily understand a solution by first understanding the problem that it solves.

A Budding Entrepreneur’s Website

Let’s say that the entrepreneurial bug bites you.  You decide to build some kind of software as a service (SaaS) product.  Obviously, you need some time to build it and make it production ready, so you pick a target go-live date months from now.

But you know enough about marketing to know that you should start building hype now.  So, you put together a WordPress site and start a blog, looking to build a following.  Then, excited to get going, you make a series of post.

And then, nothing.  I mean, you didn’t expect to hit the top of Hacker News, but you expected… something.  No one comments on social media or emails you to congratulate you or anything at all.

Frustrated, you decide to add a commenting plugin and some social media share buttons.  This, you reason, will provide a lower friction means of offering feedback.  And still, absolutely nothing.  Now you begin to wonder if your host provider hasn’t played a cruel trick on you in which it only serves the site when you visit.

The Deafening Lack of Feedback

If perhaps it sounds like I empathize, that’s because I sincerely do.  Years and years ago when I started my first blog, I posted into the ether.  I had no idea if anyone read those early posts.  Of course, I was just having a good time putting my opinions out there and not trying to make a living, so I didn’t worry.  But nevertheless, I eventually felt frustrated.

The frustration arises from a lack of feedback.  You take some actions and then have no ability to see what affect they have.  Sure, you can see the post go live in your browser, but are you reaching anyone?  Has a single person read the post?  Or have thousands read the post and found it boring?  It’s like writing some code, but you’re required to hand it off to someone else to compile, run, and observe.  You feel blind.

Introducing Web Analytics

You may flounder a bit with the lack of feedback.  But you probably won’t do so for too long, especially if you have a profit motive.  Sooner or later, you’ll do a Google search for, “how do I see how many people visited my site.”  And, not long after that, you’ll find yourself staring at something called Google Analytics.

With Google Analytics, you add a bit of javascript code to your site and let it do the rest.  With that in place, you’ll find the answer to the question of how many people viewed your latest post.  And you’ll also find a lot more answers besides.  It will seem like an embarrassment of riches.

How many people viewed the post in the last hour?  How much time did they spend looking at the post?  Did they click on the outbound links?  How many people from Kansas visited using an Android device?  You can answer all of these questions and more.

This web analytics tool provides interesting data, but you need to understand context.  The data it furnishes helps you with your marketing.  It revolves around helping you improve SEO, understand how well your site converts on calls to action, and so on.  This software has a mission, and that mission is to give you marketing insights.

Time to Launch!

Let’s now say that you install Google analytics and use it to great effect.  You realize that, while people didn’t necessarily share or comment, they did visit.  And they stayed and read your posts, to boot, instead of bouncing from your site.

Now freshly encouraged, you added a mailing list signup form and started letting people subscribe and agree to Beta test your upcoming service.  This went well, and you built a great deal of interest and a promising prospective user base.

When the time comes to launch, you migrate your blog over to become a first class part of your SaaS site.  You then launch and have a full blown, end to end marketing funnel and offering.  In other words, you no longer stop at a call to action for signing up for a mailing list.  Now, through your site, signing up means getting out a credit card, giving you money, and using a service.

The stakes increase at this point.  For one thing, outages now mean angry paying customers rather than slightly annoyed blog readers.  And, even more importantly, you’ve quit your day job.  Angry customers mean fewer paying customers.  And fewer paying customers means existential trouble for you.

Real User Monitoring (RUM)

To understand your new reality, you need to understand the limitations of analytics tools.  They do an excellent job of furnishing information about things that affect SEO and marketing campaign success.  But they don’t focus on the user experience, per se.  Google Analytics, for instance, does some sampling of page load times for your site because that affects search ranking.  But you don’t get meaningful detail on this.  Google analytics won’t tell you that you’re getting clobbered by a network problem in certain geographic areas.

For this type of information, you need real user monitoring (RUM).  To understand what this means, consider the name.  Early in the post, I mentioned the prevalence of vague buzzwords in our industry and how that makes terms go in one ear and out the other.

Well, in this case, you actually have a pretty descriptive term.  With real user monitoring tools, you instrument your site to provide actual data based on the real experiences of real users.  You then gather all of this data to understand all facets of the user experience, in near real time.

The Case for Real User Monitoring

Imagine that your business takes off and that you earn a steady and impressive stream of daily revenue.  You can thus track the success of your business based on the inbound e-commerce money.

What if, one day, you come in to find that your normal stream of money has choked to a trickle.  You might see that at the end of the day, losing serious revenue.  But now you just know a problem exists.  You’ll need to embark on an all-nighter to try to track it down, and who knows how long to fix it.

Real user monitoring tools give you a serious leg up here.  For instance, you might find that you’re losing revenue for something as silly as a new piece of CSS partially obscuring the “buy now” button.  Alternatively, you might see that some network outage in Japan is causing you a headache.  It’s beyond your control, but should sort itself out soon.

But the benefit goes beyond just pulling you out of blind, reactive mode.  You can get strategic.  Maybe you go looking for sluggish load times in key places to see how much impact fixing them has on revenue.  Or, you might roll out a new site design and use A/B testing to see which option has better user experience numbers and better conversions.

Success Requires Understanding

If you do anything involving e-commerce, you probably understand how razor thin a margin for error you have.  Whether blog posts, videos, sign-up forms, or anything else, users bounce at the slightest annoyance.  They have so many options for engaging in our highly virtual world, and providers must compete heavily for their attention.

As a result, anything that gives providers a leg up in understanding and improving the user experience gives them an enormous advantage.  And real user monitoring is vital to providing that understanding of the user experience.  So if you haven’t done so, make sure you understand real user monitoring.  It can mean the difference between a thriving business and wondering why it seems like no one ever looks at your site.

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