The background: in 2009, Google Analytics added a feature - Multiple Custom Variables - which allows you to store additional data in Google Analytics - specifically name/value pairs at a visitor, visit or pageview level. You can then segment and report based on these custom variables (CVs), to discover new things about your visitors that would not have previously been possible.
So what are the 6 Cool Things?
Well, I've been thinking a lot recently about new things to do with the CVs, so this list is a variety of ideas for things that YOU might be able to implement on YOUR website, and start discovering new insights TODAY.
1 - User Type
Many sites have users who are there for different reasons - our friends at Rated People have visitors who are either tradesmen, or home owners looking for a tradesman, and Care.com has users who are child carers (nannies, babysitters, etc) and others who are in need of child care services.
It's often possible to categorize a user based on the pages they visit or the actions they take. By storing their user type in a CV, you can discover more about the effectiveness of traffic sources and content on different user types. It can also shed light on the traffic arriving through generic sources.
For example: if Rated People saw a spike in traffic arriving through searches for their brand name, they could investigate the traffic, to see if it was an influx of tradespeople or homeowners - and could then find out what drove the traffic spike.
Likewise, Care.com could look at the people who arrived using a search term such as "babysitter listings" to see if it was babysitter or parents who used that term, and alter the content on that landing page appropriately.
2 - Cumulative actions
You could create a CV called 'Comments Posted' on a per-visitor basis, and increment the number each time a user posts a comment on your site. You could then use this, or similar metrics, as a measure of engagement - this might be something that you use directly as a conversion measure (eg: commenting on 3 or more posts is a conversion) or you could use it to segment your audience (eg: finding the conversion rate of users who performed three or more site searches, versus those who did not.)
There may well be issues of cause/effect vs correlation, but if you discovered that users who watched two or more product demo videos were significantly more likely to buy a product, then you might want to consider making such videos more accessible.
3 - User specific info
To step away from data which is useful in aggregate, this is useful only on the level of each individual: simply create a CV called 'username' and store the name of each logged in user here. This then allows you to use GA to quickly see the content viewed by a particular user - which might be helpful from a sales or a customer service perspective.
(I was worried that this might break GA"s terms of service, but I asked the team about it recently, and they had no problem with it.)
4 - Testing the impact of your social profiles
Do you wish you knew more about what happens after people interact with you on social networking sites? Or would you like to demonstrate to a cynic that all that time your team spend on Facebook has some bottom line impact? Here's the answer you were looking for:
You should then make sure that the name of the social site visited is stored in a CV. You could then segment your visitors by those who ever visited your Facebook fan page, or by those who discovered you through a social media profile, etc.
5 - Categorize your content
You can use CVs on a pageview level to bundle together different types of page. For example, a site like Nileguide might tag pages as being either country, city, attraction, bar, resturant or hotel, etcetera. They'd then be able to very quickly see how different page types perform from an SEO perspective, an engagement perspective, a conversion perspective, etc.
6 - What didn't they buy?
If you have an ecommerce site where users add items to a basket before checking out, try creating a CV along the lines of 'removed from basket', and each time an item is removed, don't throw away that information, but add it to the CV. You may want to complement this with a variable containing the items the user did evenutally buy.
Comparison of the two would be interesting on a micro level, but absolutely facinating on an aggregate level.
Bonus - First Touch Tracking
Lest we forget, Distilled has a great post about tracking how visitors first discovered your site, rather than how they most recently discovered your site - for more info read Will's post about first touch tracking in Google Analytics.
Go forth and conquer your Analytics.
You might be able to tell that I'm encouraging you to go and try some of this stuff (or better still, any ideas you came up with whilst reading the post) as soon as possible. If you have any other ideas, or you've tried something similar and would like to share your epiphanies, please do so in the comments!