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Proactive Analytics That Drive the Business

“I love the chart, but what am I supposed to do about it?” With that simple question, Ken Rudin is schooling analysts at Zynga how to deliver information that makes a difference in the way the wildly successful gaming company creates and enhances games for customers.

“My mantra these days is ‘It’s gotta be actionable,’” says Rudin, former CEO of the early BI SaaS vendor LucidEra who now runs analytics at Zynga, creators of Farmville, Mafia Wars, and other popular applications for Facebook, iPhone, and other networks. “Just showing that revenue is down doesn’t help our product managers improve the games. But if we can show the lifecycle with which a subgroup uses the game, we can open their eyes to things they never realized before.”

It’s surprising that Rudin has to do any analytics tutoring at Zynga. Its data warehouse is a critical piece of its gaming infrastructure, providing recommendations to players based on profiles compiled daily in the data warehouse and cached to memory. With over 40 million players and 3TB of new data a day, Zynga’s 200-node, columnar data warehouse from Vertica is no analytical windup toy. If it goes down for a minute, all hell breaks out because product managers have no visibility into game traffic and trends.

Moreover, the company applies A/B testing to every new feature before deploying and has a bevy of statisticians who continually dream up ways that product managers can enhance games to improve retention and collaboration among gaming users. “I’ve never seen a company that is so analytically driven. Sometimes I think we are an analytics company masquerading as a gaming company. Everything is run by the numbers,” says Rudin.

Anticipating Questions

Yet, when Rudin came to Zynga in early 2009, he discovered the analytics team was mostly in reaction mode, taking orders from product managers for custom reports. So, he split the team into two groups: 1) a reporting team that creates reports for product managers and 2) an analytics team that tests hypotheses and creates models using statistical and analytical methods. A third part of his team runs the real-time, streaming data warehousing environment.

The reporting team currently uses a home grown SQL-based tool for creating parameterized reports. Rudin hopes to migrate them to a richer, self-service dashboard environment that delivers most of the routine information that product managers need and the ability to generate ad hoc views without the help of a SQL professional.

Rudin is encouraging the analytics team to be more proactive. Instead of waiting for product managers to submit requests for hypotheses to test, analysts should suggest gaming enhancements that increase a game's "stickiness" and customer satisfaction.  “It’s one thing to get answers to questions and it’s another to know what questions to ask in the first place. We need to show them novels ways that they can enhance the games to increase customer retention.”

Zynga is already an analytics powerhouse, but it sees an infinite opportunity to leverage the terabytes of data it collects daily to enhance the gaming experience of its customers. “My goal for the year is to use analytics to come up with new product innovations,” says Rudin. By proactively working with the business to improve core products, the analytics team is fast becoming an ideas factory to improve Zynga’s profitability.

Editor's Note: By the way, the Zynga Analytics team is growing as fast as the company, so if you’re interested in talking to them, please contact Ken at [email protected].

Posted by Wayne Eckerson on February 2, 2010


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