The Devil You Know Metric

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There’s a phenomenon in the field of marketing analytics that is vitally important for you to understand because it showcases why people make the choices they do about metrics. I’ve no doubt you’ve read stories of people using or misusing a particular metric in ways that would seem almost comical if they weren’t so sad.

For example, a friend recently said that their mostly-clueless CEO read about social media influence scores while on a trip. (This is what we jokingly call airplane magazine syndrome in marketing) When he came back to the office, he made the bold, clueless declaration that his marketing staff was incompetent because very few of them had influence scores higher than 40, which was apparently the recommendation in the magazine he was reading while traveling. He then went on to make the proclamation that the company should fire any employee who didn’t have an influence score above 40.

I didn’t point out the irony that the CEO’s influence score was in the single digits.

While funny (at least if you didn’t work for this guy), this story highlights what I call the Devil You Know Metric. In the absence of other, better metrics, people will choose to focus on and rely upon the metrics that they do know and understand, even if the metrics are completely irrelevant and misleading.

We’ve seen this happen time and time again in the digital marketing field. For those who were around in the early days of search engine optimization, there was an almost fanatical devotion to Google’s PageRank metric, which assigned a logarithmic score of your website’s relative importance from 0 to 10. Companies, empires, and fortunes were made and lost with PageRank, marketers would base advertisement rate cards on it (“get links on PR6 web sites!”), and a marketer’s credibility hinged on whether his websites scored well or not.

Fast forward to today, when we have things like Klout scores, Twitter scores, Kred scores, PeerIndex scores, Facebook Talking About This, you name it. This time it’s called social media marketing instead of search engine optimization. These Devil You Know Metrics are still rooted in the same lack of understanding and over-reliance on too-simple answers, rather than digging into what’s really valuable.

Beware of this trap! If you can’t connect a metric to an end business objective in a reasonably logical fashion, then remove it from your portfolio and don’t depend on it. If you don’t understand what the ingredients are that make up a metric, don’t rely on it!

Understand what you’re measuring, and embrace the wisdom of my friend Tom Webster: bad data is worse than no data. With no data, you’ll be cautious and observant. With bad data, you’ll recklessly charge over a cliff, thinking you’re going the right way. Avoid the Devil You Know Metrics, and do the work to find what metrics really matter to you.

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