Blackbaud Sphere Remarkably Bad at Google Analytics Ecommerce Tracking

Preface: I work at Autism Speaks as their Web architect. These are my opinions and not the opinion of Autism Speaks.

Let it be said that Blackbaud Sphere is incredibly long in the tooth. Until last year, Blackbaud had left the copyright notices on Blackbaud Sphere stuck at 2008 when they purchased Kintera. However, Blackbaud has a tendency to push implementations on top of Sphere that just exacerbate the difficulty of using Sphere.

Let’s take a quick look at Blackbaud’s e-commerce tracking implementation of Google Analytics. For years, there had been NO implementation. Despite constant entreaties to Blackbaud, there was no movement on e-commerce tracking. To be fair, we weren’t asking for the simple Analytics reports that show bounce rate or unique visitors. Those were already available. This was the e-commerce portion of Google Analytics where donations and purchases were actually tracked within Google Analytics. These reports are not meant to be used by accounting professionals as Sphere’s financial transaction reports are still the final arbiter. However, there is a tremendous value to Google Analytics e-commerce statistics as they show you how your efforts on the Web are contributing to your actual bottom line. With these statistics, I can tell you how much revenue is generated by different kinds of visitors to the Autism Speaks Web site. It’s the kind of key performance indicator that can really drive decision making.

Despite Blackbaud’s seeming disinterest in this matter, we headed out on our own. Between myself and a very skilled front-end developer, Deron Hurst, we managed to cobble together an intricate system at Autism Speaks for tracking e-commerce conversions within Sphere. We could track transaction IDs, event IDs, even the circumstances under which a transaction took place. It was no joke how sophisticated this conversion tracking system was. For instance, we have product SKUs like:

272001-Autism Speaks Tribute-Memorial-registration-team-start-waysgive

This SKU would tell us which event ID this transaction was under as well whether or not it was a team registration and even the the marketing source (somewhat similar to a Google Analytics campaign source)  that tracked where the user had previously been right before the transaction took place. Fine and dandy yes? And it was, until of course we started to see transaction and revenue numbers spike up. Apparently, Blackbaud had decided to surreptitiously add e-commerce tracking to Sphere! And of course, without telling us, it started to double our numbers. Seriously, they released a new version of Sphere and didn’t bother to add their new e-commerce tracking “feature” to the release notes.

I asked our Blackbaud rep if we could even turn this “feature” off as it was interfering with our tracking reports, but apparently it can’t be removed (or won’t). What I’ve had to do is basically filter these reports out. However, the Blackbaud version of e-commerce tracking is laden with misunderstandings about how e-commerce works. For instance, the major problem behind Blackbaud’s implementation is that they don’t seem to understand what a SKU is. Let’s take a look at the Wikipedia definition of a SKU at

stock-keeping unit or SKU  is a number or code used to identify each unique product or item for sale in a store or other business.

It is a unique identifier for each distinct product and service that can be purchased

One would think that there should be a unique ID for each kind of donation a constituent can make on Blackbaud Sphere. There should be SKUs for every kind of donation at every kind of event. For a nonprofit like Autism Speaks, there should be hundreds of SKUs detailing all the different kinds of donations a constituent can make. Well, let’s see how Blackbaud Sphere tracks SKUs. Uh oh, it looks like Blackbaud Sphere only has TWO SKUs in its reports. Yes, for some bizarre reason, Blackbaud has decided to implement SKU incorrectly and put the words “Gift” or “Registration” into the SKU. In the real non-Blackbaud world, SKUs are unique. In Blackbaud’s world, all donations or registrations are given one of two SKUs. This means that Google Analytics can’t tell you now if an event in New York or an event in Los Angeles or anywhere in between got more donations than normal or not. It’s like saying a red shirt, blue shirt and yellow shirt are the same item. If you were making shirts, you would never know which shirt was selling well and which one wasn’t. By lumping all gifts or registrations into two SKUs, Blackbaud managed to rob Google Analytics of its power to quickly pinpoint in real-time which event is doing well or not. So how bad can this be, you say to yourself?

But wait, there’s more! Blackbaud also only uses one product category, “General Fund”, which I assume is going to be different for every nonprofit depending on the way you list the way money is funneled within Sphere. However, it’s clear that inserting accounting categories into e-commerce transaction analytics is just improper. It’s a misuse of what “Product Category” means in Google Analytics. Product Category is supposed to help you keep track of product categories not the fund into which the revenue is to be directed to. For instance, a clothing manufacturer will want to know whether a particular kind of clothing is doing well: t-shirts, sweaters, shorts. They don’t want to know what fund a transaction is going to. As a result, there’s no easy rollup of different kinds of donations and registrations. In other words, the e-commerce reports generated by Sphere to Google Analytics is a broken implementation and near useless for doing more sophisticated analyses of constituent donation patterns. In other other words, you will not gain competitive advantage from using Blackbaud’s Google Analytics e-commerce tracking reports.

It’s enough to make you wonder if there is anyone awake over at Blackbaud. E-commerce is supposed to be a major reason nonprofits use Blackbaud in the first place but the way Blackbaud implemented the tracking systems that watch over e-commerce are sorely broken and apparently undocumented. As of right now, I would recommend they withdraw their badly broken implementation, read a few Wikipedia articles and do it the right way, hewing to common sense, industry standards of how e-commerce is supposed to work.

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  • On 08.06.12 SeanR said:

    First of all, thanks for having the guts to speak up and air your opinion on the matter. What you articulated sounds to be a serious issue and it’s unfortunate (but not surprising) that you are not receiving solid feedback from Blackbaud.

    Are you familiar with DonorDrive event social fundraising software ( It has an elegant integration with Google Analytics. Along with the Standard Reports provided in GA, we setup each event type for an organization as a goal with corresponding ecommerce metrics. The key integration piece which seems to be lacking in Blackbaud implementations is individual transaction (donation) metrics.

    We worked to provide the following metrics which were frequently mentioned as important to an organization:

    - Total revenue over a given period of time (Hour, Day, Week, Month, Year)
    - Number of transactions and average values
    - Participant and Event number
    - eCommerce rate (% that donated out of total)
    - Assisted conversions
    - Conversion funnels (When people stopped donating, whether they returned to donate again, pages they traveled through, percentage of completions vs. entrances)
    - Organic/Paid keywords resulting in donations

    We also provide custom reports:

    - Metrics on specific or groups of referral websites
    - Inclusion (or exclusion) of certain visitors/websites
    - Top traffic sources and landing pages from each
    - How much was raised, average value, whether visitor was new/returning
    - Which pages on a website raised the most amount of money compared to others
    - Social media website interactions over time

    Many online fundraising solutions offer a range of features, but sometimes miss the important ones. Coming from someone who enjoys analyzing data, I think a proper GA setup can provide crucial information for a non-profit that wants to know how they can improve interactions with their constituents.

  • On 08.07.12 Allan Benamer said:

    Hey, do you have screenshots? I'm curious about how your reports look?

  • On 08.07.12 SeanR said:

    Sure, do you have an email address which would be best to contact?

  • On 10.25.12 Google Analytics is broken on Blackbaud Sphere -- help fix it | Non-Profit Tech Blog said:

    [...] background here… Not only is Blackbaud terribad at doing ecommerce transaction tracking.  It’s also pretty horrible at conversion funnels. If you try to set up a conversion funnel [...]

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