You want to simplify your marketing strategy with data-driven insights! You need to eliminate the guesswork by measuring, analyzing, and taking action on analytics data. But first, you need to know what data to measure and how to set that up in your new GA4, but you’re only comfortable using Universal Analytics. Not to worry! JJ Reynolds stops by to tell us how he’s done it, and shares how to transition and find the reports that will make the difference in GA4.
JJ Reynolds, data strategist and analytics expert, shares his journey into the world of analytics and how he helps companies tell better stories with their data. He emphasized the importance of understanding the intention behind marketing efforts, aligning outcomes with goals, and taking action based on the data collected.
He discusses the challenges companies face when transitioning from Google Analytics/Universal Analytics to GA4. He highlights the misconception that GA4 was a simple upgrade, emphasizing the need for customization and the effort required to adapt to the new platform.
Customizations needed for GA4 include changing the default data collection from 2 months to 14 months, and setting up custom events for important actions or events on the website.
The importance of tracking user engagement and customizing metrics in GA4 to improve lead generation. The transition from Universal Analytics to GA4, and the benefits of the new reports and features available in GA4.
The pros and cons of Google Analytics 4 (GA4) compared to the previous version. They mention that GA4 allows for more customization and easier funnel analysis, but some users miss the default reports and the ability to add segments that follow you across different reports.
Full Mastering GA4 Episode Transcript
Rich: My guest today helps companies measure their marketing and act on the data, not just look at it. Using tools like Google Analytics, data strategy, and actionable frameworks, he helps companies read their own tea leaves. Today we’re going to be taking a closer look at some of the changes in GA4 and how you can get the most out of your data, with JJ Reynolds. JJ, welcome to the show.
JJ: Hey, thanks so much for having me. It’s going to be a blast.
Rich: All right. Awesome. I love that attitude, because not everybody feels that way about analytics and math, but I am glad that you are one of the chosen people. I’m curious though, analytics does seem dry to a lot of people, even people who are marketers. So what drew you into the world of analytics?
JJ: I’ll give you the abridged version here. So basically I started out as a videographer. I was shooting content for companies. This was right in the boom of Facebook, the early days of when Facebook, when you were like hitting the boost button and getting a million impressions realize you could hit some buttons and you’d get more people to see your thing that you made, that you spent all your time, hard money and effort to do. And started doing more and more ads side of things.
I found myself in Google ads accounts running hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions of dollars per month in per ad account for mostly solar companies. I realized that multiple didn’t know what they were actually even buying or doing. They were like, “We need more leads and your company says that you can do that for us. Let’s pay.” And then they’re like, this is great. Three months later, are you really doing anything? And so that was like the cycle, right? That’s always the cycle with the agency owners, especially if you’re in paid media or SEO or any type of like acquisition channel is what happens is it really working? That’s the dreaded question that you always hear.
Then I started diving into that, basically that the deep side of analytics and said, Hey how do we get a better story out of this? How do we like know what’s actually happening? And long story short, ended up here. So now our agency just provides those. is a data company, a measurement company for other companies.
Rich: So I love that version. That’s great. I love the better story aspect of that. So how do you tell a better story with data, or what are some of the reports that you personally look at first to try and figure out what is the story of this website or this campaign?
JJ: Yeah. So I think the initial top-of-mind question is where did they come from, and did they do the thing I wanted them to do? And if you layer onto that even another level, it’s what was I trying to get them to do when I told them to come to my site?
And I think that’s the piece that most people forget about is what were you intending for them to do? As opposed to just, hey, we got a hundred people from Facebook ads, or we got 10,000 people from SEO. What was the intention of that traffic, and did the outcome that they achieved was that the intended outcome for what you were doing?
And the biggest kind of switch of that is, imagine if you had a big lead gen campaign, you’re like, let’s run leads for a PDF download type of thing. And then the marketing director comes to you and says, how much revenue do we make from this? You’re like that wasn’t the intention. We’re trying to get leads.
And then you’re like now what? So how do we have a better story? And we have to go back to the drawing board to figure out, okay, now how do we know the answer to that question? And so that’s the gist of it, you start with that. Where are they coming from? Where are they going? And line that up with what you’re trying to achieve.
Rich: Nice. It also sounds like it’s an iterative process, especially if your boss keeps on coming in and asking deeper and deeper questions, or yes, but how does this impact the bottom line?
JJ: Exactly. And then I think the one thing that I love to tell teams, because we started working with larger and larger teams that have paid media in-house, and agencies as well that might be 10 to 20 person agencies, is when you ask for a number, my new favorite acronym is WAYGDAI. What are you going to do about it?
Because you’ll see the infamous thing is like lifetime value, right? Everyone’s like, “lifetime value”, especially when the economy goes down, it’s like “lifetime value, we’re going to focus on that.” And if I told you if you are an e-commerce company, you’re like, we need to focus on our lifetime value.
And I was like, okay, your lifetime value in a rolling 90-day average is 276. What are you going to do about that? And that is completely reliant on your sophistication as a marketer. If you’re a really sophisticated marketer, you’ll know exactly what to do. Oh my goodness, 270, that’s very low. We need to focus on our second orders.
And you have another question, what’s the time between first and second order? What’s the time between what’s the average second order value? What is the average bundle? That’s but if you’re not a sophisticated marketer, you don’t know what to do with that number. And so you shouldn’t be asking that question.
Rich: Right. It’s interesting because it’s definitely that walk before you can run, run before you can fly kind of thing.
I was looking at some of your recent LinkedIn posts, JJ, and I saw you telling people to take action on their marketing data, not just look at it. So you list three steps that every marketer should take in the feedback loop. So I’d like to start there. Question, collection, visualization, would you break the, break those down for us?
JJ: Yeah. So I think the biggest thing that I see companies do is they build dashboards or reports or whatever else, and then they just look at them and they’re like, cool, all right. They don’t have anything to do with it. So everything starts with a question. And that question is directly correlated to your position of what you do.
And the biggest thing is you met a question Hey, how many people saw our opt in page? Okay, that’s a question. There you go. If I tell you it was 5,000, you’re like, one person could be saying, “Oh my goodness, that’s a lot.” Another person could say, “Oh my goodness, that’s nothing,” depending on who you are.
So your question is very relevant to the role that you’re filling and the company that you are. And that context is really important because it’s not like a one size fits all. And that’s why I think a lot of companies that do template driven reporting and template-based things, they really are at a disadvantage because the questions that you ask are very relevant to what you can do. So that’s like the kind of question part of it.
And as you ask questions, we already went down this rabbit hole, you’re going to ask more questions. And the thing that I will always ask as you ask secondary questions is what are you going to do about it? So if you ask that second question and you don’t know what you’re going to do if I give you a hypothetical, then you either need to upscale your marketing prowess or ask a better question. And that’s the biggest kind of piece there.
So yeah, that’s the queue in that start. I’m going to hop over to the last section, so the actual visualization, so it’s not actually linear here. The visualization then is exactly how you’re going to look at that question. So what I’d like to do is just sketch out what your ideal thing looks like. Don’t worry about the tech. Don’t worry about how you’re going to answer this question. If you’re in a bigger company, just be like, “What is my actual visual look like that’s going to tell me what to do?” No bounds, don’t go into a tool, just sketch on a piece of paper or use it with something that is more open like Lucidchart, or Draw.io, or one of those free tools, and sketch it out.
And what you’re going to notice is you’re going to have more and more. I call them by questions. So if I say, “How much was your revenue?” And you say, “$10 million.” That’s like the company revenue since it existed. Okay, cool. We need to break down by month, by day, by product, by a device. So you’re going to layer in these “by” questions that are going to be on your visuals. You’re not going to know it. It’s going to take someone on our team or something like that to identify those “by” questions. But once you have that and you know what you’re going to do, we’re now in, the let’s connect all the dots.
And then you have that middle step of basically getting that correct information, writing queries, connecting things together. And then building those visualizations that you already decided what you’re going to do with the answers. So now you don’t have any ambiguity of what’s going to happen here. And the better of a marketer you are, and the better of a person who works with numbers that you are, the quicker you can do those.
And that’s why the people like working with our teams, because we have that muscle built up, right? We know what questions you’re going to ask next. Once you ask the question of LTV, I know the next question is like, what’s our average order value? What’s the frequency of them? Like we know those are coming. So that’s the gist of that process.
Rich: All right. Now let’s talk about GA4. And as you and I record this interview, we haven’t even been in a fully GA4 world for an entire month. We’ve been using GA4 for longer, but at this point, there is no fresh data coming into Google Analytics. What are some of the biggest issues you’re seeing with companies when it comes to GA4 compared to what they were used to with Google analytics or Universal analytics?
JJ: I think the biggest thing is thinking of it as like an upgrade, going from WordPress 1.1
to WordPress 1.2. You hit the upgrade button, cross your fingers nothing breaks, and you’re back to doing your thing tomorrow, right? Same thing goes for software. It’s like you get an iOS phone update if you’re on an Apple device and you hit “upgrade” and BAM, no changes in your life whatsoever. That’s not what this is, what this was. And I think Google did a terrible job of explaining that. They should have named it something else, I don’t know, Google Numbers. I don’t know. Because it’s as if you were going from HubSpot to ActiveCampaign, or ActiveCampaign to Infusionsoft. You’re changing a tool and the underlying information behind it, which is way less intuitive when you name it the same thing. If a company is changing from ActiveCampaign to Infusionsoft, I know everyone’s hair stands up on end because you’re like, that’s going to be a lot of work. It’s going to be a lot of effort. We’re going to make sure that we have all these contact fields, and some functionalities might not exist that we had. Or we’re upgrading or we’re changing platforms because of a functionality we desire.
And so if you take that in your mind, that’s kind of what you have to think of. And then also it makes more sense of how much effort you have to put in to do it. So that’s the gist of it. On top of that, the biggest thing at the level of customization, I think everybody was used to a Universal analytics, forcing their customizations into Universal. Whereas G4 was built to be customized, which is a pro and a con. It’s a pro because you can customize it. It’s a con because you have to customize it. And I think that’s the biggest hurdle people keep running up against.
Rich: If somebody is listening right now and they’re like, “My vendor gave me GA4”, or “I got that email that says Google set it up for me automatically, what kind of customizations do I actually need to do?” How would you answer that question?
JJ: Yeah. So go back to what questions you’re asking and then what action you’re going to take. Because at the end of the day, you might not need something that’s super customized. You might not have that level of complexity that you need that. And I think that’s the part where you want to start with just having I don’t know, sessions by page, right? And you want to maybe have that trended over time or have it looking at overall a month or whatever those are.
Start with your questions, because Universal had a bunch of stuff built out of the box. Not just included in the situation. GA4 has less of that. I think they’re going to keep adding more and more to it. I think that’s what’s going to keep happening. Then we’re going to be going from the 1.1 to 1.2 to 1.3. But right now it’s like you have to customize it, which really is unfortunate for everyone who doesn’t understand why or what question you’re going to ask next.
Rich: So what are some of the customizations that a typical company might start with? If we’re talking about the walk before you run type model, if I just want to do one, two, or three things to get better data to tell better stories out of my analytics, what are some of the things you might suggest, having not seen my analytics?
JJ: I think there’s kind of three things you’re going to do. One, change your default of data collection from two months to 14 months. That’s two seconds in your admin. It’ll do it for two months to 14 months. Bam, easy win. Go tell your boss that, you’re great, or your client that, you’re awesome.
Rich: And just for those of you who are not super familiar with this, Universal basically collected data from the minute it was turned on right up until the end of June. But GA4 will not do that. It is going to have a moving window of data, and the longest it could be – JJ, you just pointed out – is a 14-month window. So we are not going to be able to compare year after year unless we’re pulling that data and putting it into a separate spreadsheet for all eternity. Is that correct?
JJ: Yes and no. There is like some nuances to that. So GA4 user information is going to be gone after 14 months, but a lot of the default reports will still remain intact. Again, a little bit nerdy here, but it’s anything that’s user based will be gone. That’s where the disconnect, again, poor roll out of knowledge. But you still want to be on that 14-month thing. So you can change how you’re asking questions and look back 14 months. I personally don’t think most people look beyond 12 months. Rarely they do. If they do, it’s like once a year.
Rich: Like, how did we do in Christmas last year? How do we do during the summer months?
JJ: Exactly. And so I think that’s the initial piece I’d set up there. The second thing I would do is you’re going to set up custom events for every single-entry point into your backend system, your CRM, your every lead, every inquiry, every type of method of getting into your system, you’re going to want to have a custom event for.
Rich: So just give us a brief explanation of what is a custom event in GA4.
JJ: Yeah, so G4 is event based. Meaning that you have little stamps in time that are called ‘events’. You could think of it like your life, how you have life events, you get married, you go to the bathroom, you wake up, all those different things that are events in your life. Some of them are more meaningful than others. Same thing applies to GA4. These events are like milestones in your user’s journey, and you can customize them out the wazoo.
You could say, for example, somebody reached 50% on my page, and we’re going to call that a custom event, because they engaged enough to scroll down the page. Bam, ta da, custom event. The ones like you want to start with, I would say, is like the bottom of the funnel, people filling out forms, people booking calls, purchasing, adding to cart, those types of actions that are very money focused, for lack of better terms.
And then once you get more sophisticated, you can move up from there and say, I want to see people who spent 10 seconds on my page, or people who viewed the call to action in my blog post. You can get more advanced, but you want to start with just when people are doing the thing that you really want them to do.
Rich: All right. That makes sense. And as I’m thinking about the two websites that I mostly pay attention to. One would be our agency website for flyte new media. And obviously initially I want to get all the inquiries and be tracking those events. Over time I might want to be looking at some other things that happen on the website that might ultimately lead to people signing up for my email newsletter or reading a blog.
And then on the Agents of Change tracking things like how often people are playing the play button on the podcast episodes or signing up for the conference. Not all of them are bottom of the funnel things, but those are really the most important actions or events on my website. And that’s what I need to customize, if I’m understanding you correctly, when I go into my GA4.
JJ: Exactly. And then with that information, then I’ll turn it back and say, what are you going to do with it? If you are not getting enough form submissions for your agency site, what do you do?
And that’s where you start to say then you can ask more questions to ask better information. Like how many people saw your application page, and then how many people filled the form out. And you’re like, oh, wow, the problem isn’t the fact that this conversion rate sucks, that I’m asking them their mother’s maiden name on my form. It’s that I only had 10 people this last month who even saw the application page. That’s the problem. Not necessarily the fact that I have a 32-question onboarding thing to book a call.
And it might be the opposite where you have 10, 000 people that view your application page and you’ve got six applications. And you’re like, hold up guys, we’ve got a mismatch here. And then you can start layering in those ‘by’ questions broken down by Facebook, by traffic source, broken down by where they came from previously.
I get obviously pretty excited about this. But you can see how that if you have a little bit of a process behind it, you can start really flying with your numbers here.
Rich: All right. And this is where I know just enough to get me in trouble or just enough to be absolutely wrong, so please correct me. But I believe another event that you can track either out of the box or you can customize this, is how far down the page they went.
So one of the other things you might look at if you have 10, 000 people to come into the page and three conversions, is how far down the page they got. It’s almost the equivalent of somebody abandoning their shopping cart. Maybe we put too much content on this page, too much irrelevant content, and then I can go and start working on improving that element of the page. True?
JJ: Yeah. Somewhat. Yeah. So, exactly.
Rich: Please correct me. That’s the point of the show.
JJ: Out of the box, GA4 does do a lot of things that Universal didn’t. So for example, it will track when people reach 90% of a page. It won’t track 10%, 25%, 50%, 75%, or whatever else. It’ll track when they reach 90%. So that’s a win. If you want to know out of the box people consuming your content, bam, look at that.
And so again, that’s where you have to start customizing things and say, do you want to know if people saw 10%, 25%, 50%? It also tracks outbound link clicks. So it’ll track when people leave your site, which is a different host name they’re clicking to. It will track video plays on YouTube videos because Google owns YouTube. It will do a lot of those things. So that’s the gist that you get.
And to your point is, you do have that engagement level. And now you can start to say like, how do improve this because we don’t have enough form submissions. Because that’s obviously the problem is that you’re not having enough leads, if someone listening is in that spot. But are people even viewing the page to begin with? It might be a traffic problem and not a form submission problem.
Rich: All right. We’ve talked a lot about lead gen. I actually have a question from my digital marketing manager who loves GA4. And he asked me to ask you, “I continue to get tripped on the new e-commerce metrics, building out looker reports from Universal analytics to GA4 with e-comm data is tough. How are you handling that change?”
JJ: Ooh, we’re going to get nerdy with it real quick.
Rich: This is why he had to spell it out for me, so I could ask you the question correctly.
JJ: Yeah. So I think like the way that you want to think about this. So for everybody who’s at home, who want to visualize this, open your GA4 account if you’re not driving or running or something else. And we’re about to like hop into it.
So you have an event, right? We just talked about events. Let’s just say view item. They viewed a product on your page. In that view item event, you’re going to have other pieces of information. So for example, what was the name of the product? Those things are called ‘parameters’. Think about it like a little bit of extra information here. So you’ve got a parameter of the item name, of the price of that product, what color it is, where it is on the page, et cetera. And then you’re going to click ‘add to cart’. And now you have an add to cart event with those same parameters of the name, the item, the everything else.
And so in GA4, how you want to view e-commerce is there either looking at products of how those products are moving through time, or you’re going to look at the events of how many view items that you have, how many ads to cart did you have, et cetera. And so when I say moving a product through time, is you have a view item event that happened. Then let’s just say you have, I don’t know, purple shoes, that what we’re selling. So you have purple shoes they viewed, purple shoes that then added to cart, purple shoes they then began to check out, purple shoes they then purchased. And, tada! Now you have a little journey there.
And so if you think of it as you’re either looking at purple shoes throughout time or a user traveling through view items holistically of your site, it becomes a lot easier to understand that. And I think that the biggest problem that you have with GA4 is that you have those kind of, they’re called nested things, nested parameters. Where you have an item or an event, and then you have parameters. And if you don’t understand how they work with each other, it becomes really complicated.
And that’s again, a Google problem. Anybody here, if you’re banging your head against the wall, it’s really not your problem. It should be intuitive enough that you understand how it works.
Rich: All right. Obviously we can tell a lot has changed between Universal and GA4. What are some of the pluses? What are some of the new reports that perhaps we haven’t talked about yet that you really enjoy and you’re getting a lot out of?
JJ: Oh, I love that it’s really easy to add a bunch of metrics to a report within the G4 interface. That’s really nice to have. Hey, I want to see what my traffic sources are.
Rich: Can you give me an example for that?
JJ: Yeah. So say you have your sources and mediums. So you have they came from Facebook, they came from an ad, or they came from Facebook, they came from organic or whatever it is.
Rich: Which would never happen in today’s world, but I understand where you’re going with this.
JJ: Yeah. And so then you have where you got a bunch of default kind of metrics that you could do with that. But now you can customize those metrics so you could use whatever your heart desires. You could have users, engage, sessions, add to carts, begin checkouts, purchases, conversion rate. You’re going to add all of the metrics that you want to ask to that same table and then save it for your entire organization. That’s one big pro.
And the other big pro is the explore reports, which allow you to build funnels more easily. So you can say, I want to see the people who saw a blog post, and then began checkout, and then purchased. So then you can have a better handle on how is our content doing, or how is this particular hyper specific question working. And it’s much easier to get those very specific questions in the GA4 interface out.
The problem people run into is what we talked about at the beginning of this podcast, is what do you do with that information when I tell you that your conversion rate sucks or that your traffic sources are not good. What do you do about that? That’s where people, I think, oftentimes get tripped up.
Rich: All right. Let’s flip the coin here and ask you what are some of the things that were in Universal that you wish they had kept? Or just you’re like, why aren’t we able to get this information, this data, this report?
JJ: Ooh, I think in Universal the biggest two things that people are missing the most is a bunch of default reports. So you turn it on and tada, you’ve got a bunch of default reports. People like that.
I would say also people liked, this is the biggest one I miss, is segments. Of being able to add segments to your Universal and they follow you wherever you go. Into Looker Studio they follow you. They follow you everywhere. And so I think those are the two most missed things.
I would add a third, my 2.5 here if I’m sneaking it in, would be the lack of customization. I think people yearn for customization, but then realize that what it meant when you have customization. And they got it. And then were like, hold up, I liked being confined in a box where I could play. And then I knew where the lines were, but now I have to rethink what the box is. And I think that really messed with people that weren’t heavy practitioners, which is not the majority of analytics users.
Rich: I would agree. In fact, as I was reviewing your stuff and you’re talking about, don’t just look at your analytics, put it to use. And I’m thinking if I can only get half my clients to even look at their analytics, even when I’m spoon feeding it, that would be a step in the right direction. So I wonder how many people have even really noticed the change yet when it comes to GA4. The typical users obviously, not the people listening to this podcast, but perhaps the people they have to answer to.
So you mentioned segments. I just want to touch on this for a minute. So segments in Universal were basically segments of the overall population. So you could say, “Show me everybody who came to the website and compare that to social media users” or “Compare that to people from the U.S.” and it would break it down like that, correct?
JJ: Yeah, exactly.
Rich: So how would you attain that same information in GA4?
JJ: Yeah, so you could still access it. It’s just less convenient. So you can still build segments, but they don’t follow you to other reports. They’re tied to one report, and if you build them in explorations, they don’t go with you to your default reports. And they’re there, they’re just not as convenient and not as omniscient, for lack of a better term.
Like when you made a segment in Universal, it was there and it was everywhere. Now it’s on this report, or it’s only for this one user, or it’s only for this person, it’s only for this thing. And you’re like, okay, these caveats I’m not liking. So that’s what it is now.
Rich: All right. And how much time do you think the typical marketer should be investing in growing their GA4 comfort level and also being able to create and run reports, say, on a weekly basis? Is this going to be something that we’re going to need to spend a couple hours a day on, a couple hours a week on, or is it just a little bit of upfront work and then don’t worry about it so much?
JJ: I think how I would frame it is it depends on what you’re going to do with the information. We have some clients that are like, this is the most valuable thing. And we probably spend five to five hours a week doing that for them, and that’s kind of where it sits. And they are super action every week. Boom. What are we doing? What are we doing? Split testing this. How does this work? We’re testing something, what’s the difference between these two tests? Like really user centric. They’re using it a lot and they’re getting a lot of value from it. So then it makes more sense to invest more time, money, effort into the tool.
I would say for the majority of people, I would focus on, you’re probably going to need, I would say, 30 hours to get started. And I would say spend 30 hours to get started. And that could be over months. And that’s going to shorten as you get more familiar. If you didn’t know anything, if you just signed up for G4 today and had no concept of web analytics, I would say like 30 hours, and you’ll be pretty good. And then week to week, I would say maybe an hour depending on the level of movement that’s happening in your company or in your client’s company.
Some companies build up a new funnel every week, and some companies run that same concept for a year. And it’ll be quite different between the two. So that’s my general, unanswer, broad answer.
Rich: Excellent. Alright. JJ, this has been very helpful. If people want to learn more about you, more about your company, where can we send them online?
JJ: Yeah, go to LinkedIn, JJ Reynolds. If you’re interested in learning, we’ve got betterthandata.com is where we teach this to agencies, consultants, media buyers, all those types of things. And if you’re interested in us doing it for you, our team of strategist and data people, mediauthentic.com. It’s probably easier for you just to find me on LinkedIn and click on the company, because it’s hard to spell. So mediauthentic.com is where you can go for that. So there’s the quick and dirty of it. And we’d be stoked to hear from you.
Rich: Awesome. And we’ll put those in the show notes as well. So you can find them there. JJ, thank you so much for sharing your GA4 expertise with us today.
JJ: Hey, thank you so much.
JJ Reynolds helps businesses take the guess work out of their marketing efforts, by measuring, analyzing, and taking action on their data. Be sure to follow him on LinkedIn. And if you’re in the market for help with kind of strategic help, check out the website!
Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 25+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing.