The fickle process of defining success

The fickle process of defining success
I had a conversation with a client recently to discuss current B2B campaign benchmarks. We launched a microsite but our traffic volume, like most numbers, was meaningless unless we compared it to something. We had a few hundred visits in the first few weeks but was that good? Bad? Ugly?

We had other goals of branding, internal awareness and long-term aims of building a quality content library. But for traffic volume we didn’t have previous campaign site metrics to reference.

Introducing a new metric or KPI post-launch is tricky and sometimes impossible to measure accurately. Can we know what success looks like if we don’t have a number in mind at the start?

We have two issues here, and I think they are common stumbling blocks for a lot of campaigns:

  1. We are trying to judge a campaign on metrics we didn’t initially define
  2. We are looking to use benchmarks/data from other companies to decide what “good” is

To illustrate the issue: a personal tale of success and failure in metrics.

The unsuccessful successful campaign
When I started university I wanted to graduate in the top set of the class and be given the honour “Summa Cum Laude” at graduation. The reasons for wanting this were vague, but I think it was for bragging rights and nothing more.

Across the country (and that would be the great United States of America), universities determine who get this accolade in different ways. My school awarded it to the top 4.5% of the graduating student body.

This isn’t an Academy Award-nominated story of my heroic lengths to achieve my goal. I didn’t get it.

I realised early on that I really liked drinking beer with my friends. The time I dedicated to this took away from other activities. Activities like doing a final read-through before submitting a paper to make sure I hadn’t spelled the title of the book I was critiquing incorrectly. (This happened in real life)

I did, however, graduate “Magna Cum Laude.” This was given to students in the next 9.5% of the graduating class. (Surprised given the anecdote above? Sure, I get that. I won’t take it personally.)

My original “campaign” was never going to hit my goal unless I spent my time and efforts solely looking after that one KPI. Which would have been a tragic use of those years. I had to change the metric to something more achievable.  (This shifting of goals sometimes feels a bit dubious in real-world-marketing-land.)

So by my original goal, I was unsuccessful.

If I look at the 86% of the class below me, however, then I was well above my peer benchmarks and it was a huge success.

By the time graduation came around I was damned proud of that achievement and the 86% factor really had little to do with it.*

Setting the right metrics
Really you need to start a campaign with clear and measurable objectives at the start. For instance, improve organic search traffic by X% or create a lead pipeline of XXX this quarter.

A warning: if you set campaign goals in isolation they may not be relevant to the broader aims of the business (see example above: original goal excludes making friends – re: drinking beer – and this is as important to a university career as achieving high marks).

For instance, if you create a lead pipeline that can’t be supported by your sales team you wouldn’t call it a success but a bottleneck of lost leads. Don’t market alone.

While I’m all about measurability, I ask clients to have a healthy dose of realism when determining success.

Here’s a basic idea of how you can get a better perspective of your campaign results:

First step: Look at the numbers against previous campaigns and ask yourself:

  • Did we do better or worse than last time on quantifiable KPIs?
  • Are there any elements that could have affected these results such as seasonality, PR or media efforts from other parts of the business driving traffic?
  • Can we afford to do surveys or awareness questionnaires to measure our brand uplift for this latest campaign?

Your own campaigns are the best place to start when evaluating success as you’re looking at like-for-like comparisons.

Second step: See if you have reliable benchmarks to compare yourself to.  It’s very hard to measure certain results (traffic volumes for instance) to other companies in a comparable way. You should revisit step 1 above for the best data comparison source.

To help with the client conundrum I mentioned at the start of this post, I’m using Google Trends to see if I can understand traffic around keywords to determine if our site has relevant (and proportional) search traffic. It’s not hugely accurate as there are many factors contributing to this. But it’s a starting benchmark and in the future we’ll go back to Step 1.

Third step: Once you’ve accumulated some data from the campaign see if there is a story in the unavailable data that you wish you could tell.

Do you wish you’d been able to track specific keywords instead of overall search traffic? Do you want to see email opens from a specific database segment compared to the overall list?

If it’s possible, see if you can add the tracking to allow you to investigate it retrospectively. (I need to manage your expectations now: It probably isn’t possible but you might as well ask.)

If not, see that it gets added to the next campaign’s KPIs from the onset.

Final step: Look at qualitative feedback from previous and current campaigns and ask yourself:

  • Did your corporate brand team localize it across multiple markets, proving it was a global-worthy campaign?
  • Did the success lead to your invitation as a guest speaker at a conference, panel discussion or virtual event?
  • Was the content embedded on industry blogs and communities or  generating conversation on your own social media pages?

The anecdotal results and internal outcomes are important to consider in the broader picture, though they don’t replace the value of the hard metrics.

You shouldn’t judge a campaign by metrics it wasn’t designed to achieve just as much as you shouldn’t call a campaign unsuccessful for missing one KPI in a longer list.

In the future, my client and I will be sure to establish our metrics up front to avoid any retrospective rules being assigned for success.

And as it turns out I haven’t made the sophisticated friends I imagined at 18 (likely because most of them are friends from that very timeframe) but this post is pretty braggy so I’ll consider that goal achieved as well.

*That’s a Lie with a capital L: it really felt great to beat that many people.


Okay, Jess: what was the book title you mis-spelled?

Don’t tell me it was ‘Tequila Mockingbird’ (one of the great cocktail novels of all time).

My friend’s band was called Tequila Mockingbird! It was The Rise of Silas Lapham, not to be mistaken in autocorrect for Silos Lapham. Happens to the best of us.

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