It was the week before Valentines Day always a crucial time in the flower business when Web florist Proflowers.com saw that it would need more roses and tulips to meet the orders it expected to get in the hours ahead.
"We had to reroute a freight airplane based on what we saw coming," says Chris dEon, the San Diego companys vice president of marketing. The extra planeload of flowers made it from the grower in Northern California in time to save the holiday for Proflowers and its customers.
Proflowers was able to predict demand on the fly by using an application that analyzes site traffic, from software-as-a-service provider WebSideStory.
"We had a bar graph showing traffic by the hour, from one day to the next, and you could see it ticking upwards," dEon says. "We can tell by 8 a.m. what the traffic is going to look like vs. the prior day."
Such real-time business intelligence is a powerful tool that makes use of the special properties of Web-based business.
"Web sites generate so much more information than other measures, like point-of-sale data, call center data and inventory," says Michael Christian, WebSideStorys senior vice president. "Its like being able to follow a customer through a store and seeing not just what they buy, but what aisles they go down and what products they pick up."
Established in 1996 and still saddled with one of those awful, "early days of the Web" names the company was founded by Blaise Barrelet, a French native who earlier founded Reword, which specialized in providing Internet software localization for such companies as CompuServe Interactive Services and Netscape Communications.
Privately held WebSideStory says it has some 200 enterprise customers and about 10 times that number of small- and midsize-business customers. The company also trades some of its services for advertising on about 150,000 small sites.
"We track about 10 billion page views per month for our customers," Christian says.
The proprietary software used by the company collects information directly from the browsers of site visitors and reports within two seconds of an event.
"We liked the real-time reporting, as well as the depth of information we could get out of the tool," says Brian Ficek, Northwest Airlines manager of e-commerce. The Minneapolis airline which went live with WebSideStory in late 2000, after looking at a variety of nonhosted products uses WebSideStorys HitBox Enterprise service to analyze traffic at an online mall that also features affinity partners such as hotels and car rental companies.
"Working with so many other companies made it useful to have a third party looking at the data," Ficek says. "They are unbiased and accessible to all the users."
A key benefit of WebSideStorys application service provider model is ease of installation and use. "It would be extraordinarily time-consuming to take the log files from the server, then sit down and go through almost a million page views per month," says Sandy Syrett, Web manager of Fox Racing, a sports apparel vendor that has been using the service since July 2000. "WebSideStory does it for me."
Says Proflowers dEon: "Our tech people didnt have time to baby-sit a system of our own. I thought, Were not going to be able to track on the site, and I laughed when WebSideStory said they could have us up in hours. That was two years ago. It does all the core, important things I need."
Web-based reporting also makes it easy for a variety of users to access reports as needed. "Its simple and available to all the managers and executives who need to see it," Fox Racings Syrett says.
Flexible use and pricing make the software cost-efficient, she says. "There is a sliding pay scale based on page views, and you dont have to put the counter on every single page. We did that at first, and our bill went sky high. I have control of what I track and pay for," she says.
For a marketer such as dEon, tracking page views and conversions to sales can be critical. By measuring traffic and conversions for products targeted at particular occasions, Proflowers knows what and when to promote, discount and reorder.
"Its easy to know what we want to market during the first week of May Mothers Day," he says. "But what do you do the first week in June? Graduation? Fathers Day? By knowing in real-time whats going on, I can answer that kind of question."
Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular EdCone.com weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.