Over the past decade, many nonprofits have come to rely on Google Analytics to measure their outreach impact due to the platform’s ubiquitous usage throughout multiple industries. The free price tag helps a lot too.
In a matter of months, however, Universal Analytics (aka Google Analytics as we’ve known it for the past 10 years) is coming to an end and will be replaced with GA4. If you or your team is struggling to overcome your fight, flight, or freeze response…you’re not alone!
You’ll definitely want to ‘batten down the hatches’ – the GA4 switch isn’t just an upgrade to an old product. It represents a massive shift in how your organization will understand and evaluate its own website data. The worst part may be that Google is still figuring out what GA4 is (i.e. instituting significant changes to the product every month), making this sea change even stormier.
Here’s our list of the 4 biggest waves GA4 will throw at you, as well as our best tips and recommendations on how to ride them out.
1. A decade of expertise gone in a flash
Up until this point, if you had questions about how to explore your analytics or make updates to your data collection, the answer might have been as simple as hiring a new employee.
You could count on the fact that most professionals in communications and fundraising had some exposure and maybe even proficiency with Universal Analytics. At the very least, you probably didn’t have to worry about training them on it, much like you don’t spend time onboarding new employees into Microsoft Word or Outlook in 2023.
While those days are sadly coming to a close, all is not lost. Google has put together some of their own training materials to help make this transition smoother, and this might be all you need if your organization has been running a bare bones Universal Analytics setup (i.e. your reports don’t use customizations, just the default metrics such as Users, Sessions, and Pageviews). In fact, some of the new out-of-the-box additions to GA4 (such as Download, Scroll Depth, and Video View tracking) might be helpful additions to the data you’re already capturing.
On the other hand, if your organization has invested heavily in custom data capture and event tracking or you want to store some of your past data for reporting continuity, you might make the case for a shift to a totally separate platform, like Motomo. (Hint: Our free decision-making toolkit takes the guesswork out of the equation for you!)
2. Comparing apples to apple pie
If we think of Universal Analytics as reporting on some basic numbers – like how many people visited and how often they came back – it’s fairly obvious from a quick glance at the new default metrics that GA4 has learned a lot about storytelling.
Instead of having to drill down into “Time on Page” or “Bounce Rate” figures to get a sense of how much site visitors liked our content, GA4 has come up with the “Engaged Users” metric, quickly showing in reports what percentage of visitors bothered to stick around and explore.
But just because GA4 can help you tell a better story to your stakeholders doesn’t mean they won’t be surprised when the story you’ve been telling them has a whole new cast filling old roles! Some metrics are new, some are gone entirely, and others have the same names but completely different collection methodologies.
The most crucial thing to do here is to start planning and preparing your stakeholders for the changes coming in the next few months. If the metrics you’re using to show the success of your campaigns suddenly change in the middle of that campaign, you’re going to be in for a few sleepless nights to say the least. Your best bet might be to start reporting with GA4 metrics earlier in the campaign to avoid sudden changes part way through.
On the other hand, if this will mean bigger changes to how you’ve done reporting on site performance in quarterly or yearly presentations, there’s no better time than the present to review Google’s documentation on how metrics will now be calculated moving forward so you can communicate those shifts ahead of time.
3. Hoping for the best, but not preparing for the worst
There’s no sense sugar coating it – Google is moving your cheese. In fact, it’s pretty much replacing your cheese with shelf-stable cheese product. Those of us at ParsonsTKO who hail from Philadelphia recognize the nostalgic allure of the bright orange stuff, but we’d be pretty upset if a caterer showed up with that when we ordered a European cheese board. You and your stakeholders probably feel much of the same.
You’re likely already receiving emails from Google telling you how easy it is to migrate – just click a button and poof, like magic, you’re on GA4.
What they’re not telling you is that all of your custom events and metrics will be ignored. Oh, and all the data you’ve gathered over the past several years? Lost in time, like tears in rain.
It’s easy to think that Google wouldn’t pull the rug out from its own customers with GA4, but just remember…it’s free. What Google cares most about right now is navigating the legalities of privacy concerns with its data collection platform (a huge impetus behind the move to GA4 in the first place).
Does that mean you shouldn’t even bother? Not at all! A few extra steps (ex. Enabling enhanced event tracking and extending the data retention window) will have your GA4 setup humming along nicely. Reporting will be a bit more difficult, especially if you’re used to using a free tool like Google Data Studio (now Looker Studio), but with time and training, your teams can learn to use GA4’s reporting to answer many of your analytics questions.
And if you want to explore if another option might be a better fit for your organization, there’s still time! Our decision-making toolkit can help you evaluate some of our most recommended tools and how they might meet your needs.
4. Leaving your data to chance
At ParsonsTKO, we like to say that answers might get all the credit, but questions do all the hard work. We mentioned reporting in a few of the sections up above, but it bears repeating. The way that the vast majority of your teams and stakeholders will interact with GA4 isn’t in the platform itself, it’s seeing those numbers in other reports or brought up in planning meetings.
It’s critical, then, that you and your team answer some tough questions now. Take the time to plan not only a migration to a new analytics platform, but a migration to data-driven decisions within your organization. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers here. Either your staff learns to rely on the internal reporting tools within GA4 or your org invests in the expertise and infrastructure needed to move the data out of GA4 (using Google’s own BigQuery or third-party tools like Supermetrics) and format it for your own purposes (in dashboarding programs like Tableau or Power BI).
Consider this your chance to chart a route that goes around the storm rather than through it. It’s much better to be having conversations around this now than in July, when your current reporting apparatus suddenly stops receiving the data you rely on and you’re lost at sea.
If you’re facing a situation like this, we highly encourage you to book a strategy call with our team to chat through opportunities here.