Only Measure What You Can Manage
“You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”
I encountered the concept during my first year at business school, and it hit me like an epiphany. It built a footbridge between the mastery of management I aspired to, and the drudgery of quantitative analysis I’d hoped to avoid.
I crossed that bridge, many times over the years. I became a champion for analytics in marketing, a zealot like the converted. On returning to the agency world I chafed at the lack of accountability in general media advertising, eventually making my way over to a back corner of Ogilvy & Mather where a ragtag group of freaks and geeks were working on something called “Interactive.” Creating early digital marketing programs for clients like American Express and IBM was a rush. Everything was just so immediate, and all of it gloriously measurable, right down to the click. I was hooked.
As the Internet dawned the drumbeat of accountability quickened. Eventually the Inbound Marketing Revolution turned the math into a science; the “Growth Hacker” was born, and with her came keyword testing, SEO, the cult of content, click-bait, the Lead Form, Open Rate Analysis, the MQL, and on and on and on. Late last week I delivered a slide to our board providing existential proof we’d gotten a positive return on every nickel of our Q1 marketing program spend. Today I find myself scanning window after window of reports from Google, LinkedIn, Salesforce.com, and Hubspot… and you know what? For all the data, I’m hard pressed to describe what it means in simple terms.
What I want to know is what’s driving sales. For all that’s gone into the development of our state-of-the-art sales and marketing funnel — all the expense, all the time, and all the effort — the truth is I really don’t have a fucking clue what’s driving sales, and what isn’t.
It’s time to admit the mathification of marketing has gone too far.
I get how we got here. The siren song of quantitative validation is just so strong. We enlightened few always knew marketing was really, really valuable. Now we can “prove” it to the philistines with a shiny dashboard that makes it seem so clear, and us seem so smart. Who wouldn’t want more of that?
The problem is, it’s a lie. We’ve mistaken precision for accuracy, so that all we’ve really revealed is exactly what we don’t know. To torture the metaphor… A dashboard tells you everything you need while driving except where you’re going. I don’t need a dashboard. I need a windshield.
For a while I thought it was me, but it’s not. People are tearing down their lead forms like French peasants casting off the yoke of oppressive monarchy. We’re admitting that while everything “integrates” with Salesforce, nothing actually works with it. Islands of clarity in the systems we use to measure online traffic, social media, organic search, events, inbound, inside sales and pipeline collect to form an archipelago encased in impenetrable fog. 80% of marketers admit source attribution is impossible, and 20% are full of shit*. And if you’re reading that and thinking about trying to sell me some system that makes it all go away, some other thing I have to buy and put on top of everything else or use to replace everything I’ve already spent a fortune pulling together, please — drop what you’re doing, and go fuck yourself.
I’m sure there are businesses where none of this is true. I know you can’t build an online retailer these days without the tools to harvest demand from search and social. There are businesses right here in Boston built on little other than that, and decent customer service. But in a business like mine? A complex solution sale to a coalition of buyers in a global enterprise? Forget about it. I’d argue the promise of digital marketing for most businesses is actually way over-sold… certainly more valuable than doing nothing, but less impactful than great execution on the fundamentals of story, product, pricing, promotion, and long-term brand development.
The problem? All those other things are really hard to do for people without a really specialized set of skills. It takes time to watch them unfold, and create value. So on the one hand you have the knowledge, craft, and discipline of what experience tells you will work over the long run. On the other, a graph on the iPhone of some pimply-faced “expert,” clearly showing you are an asshole.
It was never a contest.
So what’s an enlightened marketer to do? How do we get back to a place where the flow of data serves the people making decisions, and not the other way around?
Here’s my thought: We need to do a better job reflecting on the real importance of everything we measure. Specifically… does the data you’re gathering meet the standard of being able to drive a decision you can’t make effectively today? Does it help you understand the fundamental truth of where your real sales prospects are, how they find you, and what moves them to action once they do? If it does, bust out the protractor. If it doesn’t, don’t invest in gathering up a bunch of data that’s only going to cloud the space between you and the truth.
We need to get back to the narrow set of questions we’re really interested in, start over from there, and figure out what data we truly need to formulate fact-based answers. Where did the stuff we sold last quarter come from? What touched it on the way from a “lead” to customer? How much did it really matter in advancing this opportunity? What did it really cost me to deliver?
While it’s still true that you can’t manage what you can’t measure, the fact is you can’t manage everything. Management is first and foremost about setting priorities, determining the comparatively narrow set of things you must do exceptionally well to win.
I’m convinced that measuring those — and nothing else — is the key to pulling us all back from the abyss of bottomless data, self-justifying analysis, and conclusions everyone knows are bullshit. And that’s the essential first step in shifting our focus away the creation of compelling board-level slideware, and toward the creation of authentic business value.