How to break free from the benchmark trap

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Agustin Rejon

06. 09. 2023 | 6 min read

How to break free from the benchmark trap

6 mins left

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So, my colleague Neil, a guy with a passion for performance marketing and outdoor adventure, is gearing up for the almighty London Triathlon this Sunday.

For months, Neil has been hitting the training grounds (with the occasional detour to the White Cross pub). With each huff and puff, he’s getting better at knocking seconds off his all-important lap times.

But here’s the question: how does Neil determine when his lap times are good enough to compete? What times should he aim for during his swim? How does he know when he’s cycling or sprinting quickly enough on the big day?

In the quest to answer to “What does good really look like?”, Neil has two options ahead of him:

Option 1: Set a baseline on Day 1.

Neil assesses his fitness levels at the very beginning of his training journey. Armed with a stopwatch, he clocks his Day 1 performance in each activity and hopes to generally improve.

Option 2: Establish a benchmark

Neil sneaks a peek at the lap times of the guy in the next swimming/cycling/sprinting lane — or he asks ChatGPT “What should my swimming time in a triathlon be?”.

But without Option 1’s baseline, Neil might set some pretty unrealistic goals — say, aiming to complete tomorrow’s sprint in 30 mins when yesterday’s took him an hour.

And without Option 2’s benchmark, he might be satisfied with incremental improvements on his own time — but end up at the back of the pack come triathlon day.

Both of the above options are crucial for determining realistic performance goals — and each requires the other to provide meaningful context.

Why baselines are just as important as benchmarks

While it’s certainly useful to wonder what good should look like — it’s really two questions: “Where are you today?” (a baseline) and “Where should you be?” (a benchmark).

If you neglect one of those questions in your effort to improve, you risk setting unrealistic goals for your team or organization, setting you up for failure and sweet, sweet disappointment.

  • Without baselines: you lack a realistic understanding of your starting position and the progress you need to make.
  • Without benchmarks: you lack a meaningful yardstick to gauge your advancement, relying solely on ambitious aspirations without the context provided by baselines.

Why industry benchmarks don’t give you the full picture

More often than not, companies turn to industry benchmarks as a way to set the bar for their marketing efforts.

But while these can offer a reference point for comparison —  company goals, strategies, target audiences, and unique circumstances can vary significantly, and impact what constitutes “optimal” performance.

Here are five common issues associated with industry benchmarks:

Limited context

Industry benchmarks are often calculated using a hodgepodge of results from different companies, industries and campaign types.

That soupy data is often wildly generalized — applied as a goal that completely excludes the unique circumstances, goals, or strategies of your company. This leads to a broad, wispy depiction of what would really constitute “good performance.”

Diverse objectives

The goals that companies pursue can’t truly be homogenized into an industry average.
So while one company might be striving to improve their brand awareness, another might be focusing on generating new leads aggressively. Using a single industry benchmark to assess these different objectives is actually not that helpful for establishing the success of your unique program.

Audience variability

Who you’re talking to can drastically change how you measure your marketing. A strategy aimed at CTOs and CIOs is likely to need a radically different approach to messaging, content and creative than a program aimed at HR managers.

So unless your benchmarks are specific to that audience, they won’t be effective at gauging your success.

Creativity and voice

This one truly strikes a chord with me, as it reveals a significant drawback of industry benchmarks: because they are generalized by definition, they simply don’t account for all the creativity that goes into your marketing strategy.

Say there’s two brands running two campaigns that are going after the same audience. One brand has invested in developing a visual identity and has gotten unusually bold with their creative — and the other brand is just using stock images and ChatGPT ad copy.

When averaging the performance of those two brands, the industry benchmark doesn’t take into account that brand 1 marketed themselves much more creatively, which was a major reason for their campaign to work better.

Elusive and outdated metrics

As you might have heard, the marketing industry can be  subject to some pretty rapid shifts.

Benchmarks may lag behind these changes and fail to reflect the latest trends or disruptions that affect real-time marketing performance. Plus, finding a really specific benchmark can be a bit like searching for the perfect analogy — sometimes it’s just not out there.

Especially if you’re running a super-focused campaign, like targeting Software Developers in Germany through Programmatic Display. Trying to compare that with broader “B2B tech” industry benchmarks is like comparing chalk to cheese.

Combining Baselines and Benchmarks: A Holistic Approach

Now, before you start thinking that industry benchmarks are completely off the table, let’s talk about a more balanced and effective approach.

Instead of relying solely on those benchmarks, why not consider a strategic dance between baselines and benchmarks? Done right, this combination can unlock some serious insights and guide you toward a more realistic and successful marketing journey.

Here’s how we make the magic happen at Velocity:

  • Establish your baseline: Begin by looking inward. Audit your current performance. Your paid media results. Your progress with SEO. Your nurture click-through rates and the like. 

    This baseline is your starting point, the foundation upon which you’ll set expectations with your stakeholders. Consider it a reality check; a marker that helps you gauge where you’re standing before you set your sights on where you want to go
  • Embrace industry benchmarks as your North Star, not gospel: Now, with your baseline in hand, turn your attention to those industry benchmarks. Instead of accepting them as definitive truth, remember the misconceptions above and view them as guideposts along your journey. Use them to provide valuable context — a rough map of what’s achievable in your industry.
  • Run your campaigns and assess the delta: With your baseline and benchmarks in mind, execute your marketing campaign with purpose. As the campaign unfolds and results come in, closely monitor its performance against your baseline.

    This delta — the difference between your starting point and where you’re headed — becomes a clear measure of progress. It shows you whether you’re inching closer to those industry benchmarks, or maybe even exceeding them?
  • Optimize and adapt accordingly: The real beauty emerges in the next step — optimisation. Analyze the data, dissect the results, and uncover learnings. Are you making strides toward your benchmarks? This is where you unleash your creative powerhouse. Adjust your strategies, tweak your messaging, change your subject lines, A/B test and innovate based on the real-time feedback you’re receiving.
  • Repeat and Refine: Remember, this process isn’t a one-time show. It’s a continuous cycle of improvement. After all, your baseline today becomes the benchmark of tomorrow. Keep refining, keep evolving, and keep using this dynamic interplay between baselines and benchmarks to guide your marketing efforts toward greatness.

In short, the synergy between baselines and benchmarks offers you a much richer perspective for planning your strategy than depending on one or the other. Don’t conform to an industry average or relinquish your creative flair — embrace a holistic approach that lets you get aspirational while staying achievable.

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