Back to Basics: A Primer on Marketing Metrics

As I’ve previously confessed, I’m not much of a numbers person. I excelled in math classes throughout my school years, but once I decided on a creative career path and formally acknowledged that I’m a word nerd, my math brain shut down. I struggle even to balance our personal budget.

This blissful ignorance – eschewing numbers – was mostly fine when I was in a purely writing and editing role. But once I switched over to marketing, I realized I was in for a problem. In business, math isn’t going anywhere. In fact, tracking metrics (the right ones) and determining hits and misses is a critical part of a marketer’s role.

If you’re in a similar position, welcome to the club. In today’s post I want to offer a primer of the key lessons I’ve learned – things that a marketer needs to keep in mind when measuring for success.

Learn to speak the language: marketing metrics vocabulary

There’s an alphabet soup of acronyms that you may encounter when talking about marketing metrics. If you’re already familiar with these, feel free to skip ahead.

“Return on Investment” (ROI) is a favorite in the business world. It basically answers the question: “Is the effort or cost of doing this thing yielding a positive return to our business?” It’s a powerful stat that can help justify – or kill – the project that you’re working on.

“Key performance indicators” (KPIs) are benchmarks of the main operations of your company. KPIs are useful in helping you get a pulse on how your business is performing. The numbers and calculations – what you’re striving for – may evolve, but the KPIs are likely to stay standard year in and year out. I can’t tell you exactly what your business’s KPIs are, but I encourage you to spend some time thinking about them and ensuring you’re tracking the right things.

“Comps” help you see how your efforts performed this time around as compared with a previous period. For example, you may compare month over month (“MoM”) or year over year (“YoY”).

When tracking digital efforts like web pages or email blasts, you’ll run into another set of terminology. There are “impressions” (how many times your page or ad displayed) and “clicks” (how many times the reader took the action to click a page – to view another page, for example). “Open rate” and “click-through rate” (CTR) are also key terms. Another “c” term, “conversions,” may be the ultimate metric: It helps you know how many people took the desired action – for example, purchased your product.

Customer Lifetime Value,” or CLV, is a newer metric, which started to be tracked more recently by marketers and brand loyalty experts. CLV is not easy to hard-stamp. It’s less scientific and more about how long your current or new customers will stick around.

Bottom line: There’s a lot you could track – but that doesn’t mean you should track every single thing, as I’ll explain momentarily.

Who cares about marketing metrics?

Who within a marketing org should look at metrics?

Hint: The answer is broader than you think. From content writers and producers to artists and analysts, everyone should have a look at the data – at least occasionally – to ensure things are on track.

At one of my recent jobs, everyone in the company, from HR to tech, went through analytics training. Granted, not everyone needed the same level of training. The people who were on the front lines calculating the website’s performance and tracking success, for example, needed more robust knowledge. But everyone needed to have at least a working understanding of what numbers we were following and the performance diagnostic they reflected for the business.

What marketing metrics should I measure?

There are many kinds of metrics that you might want to watch, from views to open rates to conversions. First piece of advice, especially as you’re starting out: Keep it simple. Try to track a few things only so you can start to get a feel for your business and benchmarks.

Let me lob a couple questions back at you. At the end of the day, what do you really want to know? What are you really trying to test?

If you don’t have clear answers to these, get them. You may need more directives from your boss or to hash out what your main goals are. It’s important to ask these questions up front, before you start the work, to ensure everyone has the same expectations of what to achieve, what to measure, and, most importantly, what to tag a “success.”

As you’re determining answers to the above questions, it’s important to consider the context, too. For example, if you’ve just launched a product and created a new website or campaign, you probably want to track traffic. This helps you simply know how many people saw your Wonderful New Thing. These are called “awareness” metrics.

On the flip side, if you’re a decade in to an ongoing campaign, your measurement needs have matured far beyond awareness and traffic. I’m not saying you should stop tracking those – on the contrary, it’s always wise to keep an eye on standard KPIs and data. But you can dig for deeper meaning with metrics that track something called “engagement.” This may mean things like how much time people spend on a page or how many comments or likes your social media post gets. Engagement is a wide-swath term that helps characterize actions that show people are interested in your content.

Another thing you might look at is return visitor rates – as in how many of those people who come to your site keep coming back? (As an aside, if you’ve been running the same campaign for 10 years and it hasn’t gone stale, I’d love to hear from you. Share your secrets!)

How do you measure success?

And how does your boss measure success? If these answers are different – and they’re likely to be – you may encounter a problem even before you hand off numbers and reports. What you think is stellar may be abysmal to the boss. Again: Be sure to set expectations up front.

A quick note on industry standards: It’s good practice to know what they are for each key measurement. Industry norms help you gut-check how you’re doing. I hesitate to put specific numbers in this post because industry standards evolve and vary wildly by industry, but you can always do an internet search to see what is current. What I find more helpful, especially at the start, is to first establish the typical rate for your business. Benchmark and measure against that at the start; worry about the other guys later.

Pulling it all together: tips and tools for gathering your marketing metrics data

Now let’s talk tactics. When you first set out to track your metrics, you may be overwhelmed with the sheer volume of all those numbers. Where to put them?

Spreadsheets are a great place to store your raw data. I like to set up simple tables to capture it. For example, if I need to track web traffic week over week, I create a quick table that tracks date and frequency. It looks something like this:

These simple grids give me an easy place to input data and evaluate it. Take a look again at the example and see if you notice anything noteworthy – such as the spike in traffic to Page A between weeks 1 and 2. You would want to ask yourself questions such as: What caused that? What campaign did I start that week? or What email did I ship? When I start to look into the simple numbers, I begin to see a bigger story. More often than not I come up with a list of questions to investigate and more numbers to pull – all of which helps me measure success.

Painting pictures out of marketing metrics: charts and graphs

I also use that basic table as the backbone to calculate growth and create charts. For example, in this case I would calculate the growth from Week 1 to Week 2 via a formula in Excel or Google Sheets: (Week 2-Week 1)/Week 1 = growth %.

I can then create a chart out of that data to visually represent it, for example, a bar graph that shows my traffic soaring. These visual cues make it so much easier for people like me – the number averse – to quickly analyze performance and track dips or trends.

Save time with automation

If you find the need to pull the same data over and over, consider what you can automate with a query. All you need to do is execute the query and review the results rather than manually pulling data and crunching numbers into formulas.

Track the same things at the same times

For beginners, I usually suggest tracking the same data over and over – especially when you’re first getting started. Always chart site visits and click through rate, for example. Start small, with just a few key data points, and repeatedly look at their performance. It’s the “apples-to-apples” mentality. True, occasionally you will want to track a pineapple or starfruit – or some other oddity or one-off request. But to keep things simple, try to measure the same things over and over.

Also, aim to track your data over the same period of time for maximum impact. Many websites, like Google Analytics, provide data in real-time. You could constantly look at your data to see how your site or campaign is performing. But, caution! To tell an accurate story and not get lost in the endless sea of available data, you need to limit yourself. Look at data on Tuesdays, or on the 20th of the month, for example. This helps constrict how much time you’re spending with the numbers. It also helps you ensure your data is telling a comparable, coherent story.

For example, if in April you track how much traffic your website receives on the 20th, in May be sure to also look at the data through the 20th. If you alter that by even a day, your numbers may be off. This is especially critical when running comps like MoM and YoY, or checking seasonal trends.

And again, consider context. For example, if you want to see how well your Black Friday campaign behaved as well as set up projections for future years, take note that the date is different each year. You’ll need to know that Black Friday was on November 25th in 2016, but it’s not until November 29th in 2019, for example. Those pesky little details make a big difference.

What to do with the results: interpreting meaning and telling a story

So, you’ve got all of your numbers and are staring at them until your eyeballs are red, trying to discern what they mean. Now what?

Remember there are stories lurking in those numerals. And it’s your job to interpret what they’re saying – to determine what is working and what is not and to account for traffic spikes (or dips).

This is when you can go back to those questions you started asking yourself during the initial scan of the data. “What caused that spike?” or “Why was there so much traffic on August 1st?” That kind of thing.

Investigate and find those answers. Figure out what they’re saying – and why. This is a fun part of the job, at least for me. I feel like a detective wading through clues and context, trying to determine why things are they way they are.

As an example, let’s say you saw a traffic spike on August 1st. You track back to your editorial calendar and discover that – hey-o! – that’s the day you sent an email blast and made a Facebook post. Well, jinkies, that’s a clue! Because it’s relatively easy to get data for both email and Facebook marketing, now’s the time for you to go down those two rabbit trails and see what you can discover. Maybe you find that the email was your breadwinner in this campaign. Note that – and call it out as a win. Remember to put it on your list of “do agains.” And, for those tactics that aren’t working well, consider whether the low-performers were a fluke or something you need to ditch.

Remember, even “bad” metrics tell you something. They tell you where not to focus your efforts and spend your time. And that’s just as worthwhile as knowing what’s a homerun.

Reading between the lines

One final thought: Sometimes it isn’t always about what data you do get, but what you don’t. For example, where do people drop off your website? It’s important to know what is in those gaps and voids, those white spaces. Try to read between the lines and see what you can infer.

Believe me, I tried to avoid metrics as long as I could. But as I got further into my career, I realized marketing truly is a balance of science and creativity. And numbers aren’t so bad, after all!

Now it’s your turn

I hope you find these tips useful. Are there other metrics that you track and would suggest? Leave a comment.