Nonprofits can gather expansive amounts of information about their online visitors by using free programs like Google Analytics.
But how much of this information is really important—especially for groups that have limited time to track and analyze data about viewers?
Joanna Miles, online campaign organizer at Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group, says nonprofit leaders should be selective about what they track.
"If we're never going to use that data, I don't want to track it," she says. "Otherwise, it's just more noise in our content reports."
For nonprofits that use Google Analytics, Ms. Miles recommends they use a tool called Goals, which can track how many views a particular page gets, how long someone spends on the page, and how many pages on a Web site each person visits.
1. Outbound links and inbound referrers
Many groups measure the amount of time that someone stays on a Web site to help gauge how well it is engaging users. But when users leave the Web site, Google Analytics can show only the last page they visited, not where they're going.
Ms. Miles addresses this by placing goals on all outbound links—those that direct away from Food & Water Watch—including the site's social-sharing portals. This allows her to differentiate between the people who leave the site to visit the organization's Facebook page and those who are "just wandering away," she says.
In addition, knowing where visitors come from can tell an organization how well it is connecting with people on other sites and social networks.
2. Downloadable resources
Food & Water Watch offers users a number of fact sheets and reports on its site, usually in the form of PDF files. Users can also access spreadsheets and other downloadable content. Because these file names always end in a predictable extension (.pdf, for example) it is possible to attach goals to all of them at once, without going through each file individually.
"It's the only way we can know if people are using them," says Ms. Miles.
3. The thank-you page
Almost every charity has a thank-you page that appears after someone makes a donation. Tracking the traffic to this page is a reliable way to see how many people are donating, since people can click on the "Donate" button without actually giving.
For Web sites with a donate or checkout process that requires more than one page, Ms. Miles says, attaching goals to monitor the traffic to each page can reveal when users start to drop off.
Although donations are a concern to most groups, other uses of Analytics will vary.
For nonprofits dealing with the "balancing act" of how much data to log, Ms. Miles stresses the importance of having clear objectives. For her organization, she says, "We care about people donating, signing up for newsletters, and taking action. Figure out what’s important to you on your site, and have something in place to track it."