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The Easy Numbers Lie – Be realistic about your marketing KPIs

February 12, 2019 - Business Psychology, Marketing -
By: Chris Riley

I suspect the next time you work on your slide deck for an internal meeting, you will spend a good chunk of that time hunting down that one big number or up-and-to-the-right graph to include. In marketing, we have to measure what we do, and we want to talk about the good results, not the bad. We do this not only for our co-workers or board, but also for ourselves.

But, personally, after working actively within high-tech startups, I’ve realized how often those rah-rah slides were deceiving everyone. They created a heroin drip of pats on the back that were supported by nothing real. Marketing teams encounter vanity metrics on a frequent basis, but it is the success of all campaigns that matters, not just the sexy ones.

I can remember preparing for meetings, where after producing metrics that seemed to show serious success, such as trial sign-ups, clicks, site visits, etc. (whatever I could find that looked awesome), I realized there was a serious problem. And in the meetings, everyone was scratching their heads, and asking, “How did that last big result you showed not lead to revenue?” I was just as confused. My response was to find another cool-looking graph or number.

This is so common that it is hard to think of a startup where similar situations have not occurred. Even the darlings of the tech world fall into this trap. Like Docker (sorry to pick on you), with their public hub download numbers. Huge numbers — that did not seem to relate to meaningful adoption. They were measure-tinkering, and eventually stopped referencing it. Consider open source software (OSS) vendors that count the size of their OSS community. (Seriously, every single one of them does this.) My previous employer counted the number of free trial users (users who were exploiting freemium trials, but did not feel like there was enough value when it came time to pay). The companies HPE/Micro Focus have measured the volume of traffic on a microsite, but not where that traffic went later.

All of these results matter. They are all top-of-the-funnel traffic. But how they convert to the next step in the buyer’s journey is just as important. And generally, there is an inverse relationship to the number of trials, clicks, and views, and the percent they convert. The greater the number, the lower the conversion. At some point, the conversion may be so low that it can’t compete with more targeted efforts.

The trick to avoiding the numbers trap is to always pair the outcome with its impact on conversions and the next step — or if possible, to revenue. So many times, companies focus on the numbers at each stage of the funnel, without wondering about the rate of transition between stages — a better barometer of how your funnel is moving. A constipated funnel is bad.

The questions you and your company should not be asking

“That post went viral — Why don’t you just make more like that?”

If you find yourself asking a question like this on a regular basis, then you are addicted to vanity numbers. (That is not how virality works, by the way — if it did, someone would have cracked the virality “algorithm,” and every post published would be viral. We would all be robots. And none of us would have a job.)

“I just don’t understand why we have so many trials, but so few customers?”

People trick you to access freemium or trial software. So many people sign up for something and then abandon it. The flow looks like this: open tab, sign up, go to another tab while page is loading, forget about trial. They frequently will try again later with a different email address. It’s not uncommon for a techie to sign up for something three times before they actually test it.

“We got a ton of clicks on that ad, but why no conversions?”

Because where the potential customers landed when they clicked did not fit expectations, or their persona did not fit the offering. Or it was competitors trying to thwart you. Or people were coming for info and it was easier to click on your ad than to type the URL.

“Why so many tradeshow scans, but so few responses?”

Trade shows shouldn’t really be considered lead gen activities anymore — and often, the vendor is the problem. I’ve regularly encountered a booth attendant who admits they just need a scan — They don’t care who I am. Every attendee knows what is going to happen when they get scanned, and they have their “unsubscribe” trigger finger ready. It’s a small price to pay not to have an awkward moment with booth staff and get a pair of socks or a trinket for their kid. They may even be interested in you, but not because of your scan. Your value is showing up, smiling, and answering questions of those who ask.

Closing thoughts

If you’re just looking for numbers and nice graphs, go to Fivrr and get them — You can buy large amounts of traffic to anything these days. Or, you can be realistic about your marketing KPIs. Measure your collective marketing efforts over long periods of time, and build cohorts to see how targeted groups of campaigns do compared to others. Marketers should reach for the stars when designing a campaign, but be consistent and realistic when evaluating the results.


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Chris Riley (@HoardingInfo) is a technologist who has spent 12 years helping organizations transition from traditional development practices to a modern set of culture, processes and tooling. In addition to being a research analyst, he is an O’Reilly author, regular speaker, and subject matter expert in the areas of DevOps strategy and culture. Chris believes the biggest challenges faced in the tech market are not tools, but rather people and planning.

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