There are countless ways for a baseball team to win a game. Maybe it ends up being a 1-to-0 duel between two ace starting pitchers. Or maybe it's a high-scoring affair—a wild 10-to-7 game with plenty of home runs and questionable pitching performances—yielding a bounty of baseball statistics ranging from the traditional (batting average, strikeouts, runs batted in) to the advanced (batting average on balls in play, fielding-independent pitching, on-base plus slugging).

If you're an analytical sports fan like me, all those numbers are pieces in a bigger performance puzzle. But, at the end of the day, one metric matters above all else: wins.

In the same way that there's no trophy given to the team with the highest slugging percentage or the fewest runners left on base each year, successful marketing campaigns aren't determined based on diagnostic metrics alone.

Don't fall into the trap of letting these middle metrics dominate your campaign at the cost of wins.

Don't do anything without a solid measurement plan

Most companies want to enter into digital marketing campaigns with well-defined objectives. Marketing agencies often embrace that approach because it gives them a target and a way to prove progress is being made. Boosting total webpage visits, increasing open rates, and reducing average cost per click are common examples of digital marketing objectives.

Unfortunately, such a singular focus on one component of a complex customer journey can prove detrimental to a company's bottom line. A marketer charged with boosting website visits will diligently work toward that goal, but the benefit is meaningless when the new visitors do not become profitable customers or do not convert at all. The same principle applies throughout the system: A celebration for a 10% drop in cost per click is short-lived when Sales reports that it experienced a 15% crash in revenue during the same period.

To avoid this problem, it is necessary to define goals and the ways they will be measured—before developing a digital marketing strategy.

The best approach is to have a conversation that puts analytics aside and determines, in simple terms, what the company actually hopes to accomplish. Doing so keeps secondary KPIs in their proper place: They are not an end-game, they are diagnostic tools that keep you on track to reaching those goals, and they inform where the course needs to be corrected along the way.

Before even worrying about analytics, know exactly where you are and where you want to go. It will then become clear which measures will be used to define success and which will be used to support your journey to get there.

Good marketing agencies and marketers can differentiate themselves by taking that approach.

Predicting the unpredictable: Keep the butterfly effect in check

Even after one or more KPIs are established, it is still extremely difficult to keep your eye firmly on the ball. Every digital activity is measurable, and many marketers and agencies use analytics related to those activities to prove their worth to their companies or clients.

It has become so encoded in the marketing discipline's DNA to track every behavior, that marketers who provide massive dashboards showing dozens of metrics and areas of improvement are seen as experts who are creating real value... But, in reality, most clients or companies end up confused when trying to muddle through these complex data sets.

With the wealth of digital analytics available to marketers, it has become commonplace for agencies, for example, to showcase a wide range of data points as part of their campaign reporting. But data overload ensues when an agency overwhelms a client with a deluge of metrics—often cherry-picking the numbers that put the agency and its work in the most positive light.

That is not to say analytics are bad. In fact, they are extremely useful in optimizing a digital campaign. But when reaching for a long-term goal, it is vital to understand that every pulled lever will impact several others downstream. Some of the affected values might look negative when viewed in a vacuum, so it is up to marketers to predict with as much accuracy as possible where the problem metrics may pop up—so they can be anticipated and explained. The path to improving conversions may include upticks in bounce rates, downturns in email open rates, or a variety of other measures that look "bad" when they appear in red on the dashboards that managers who hare keen on the democratization of data are eager to review.

Analyze such metrics with executives to determine whether they are warning signs that the campaign needs to be adjusted, or whether they are actually helping boost the campaign's most important KPI.

Elevate your role to a consultative approach

Marketers and agencies retained to "make the numbers" face an uphill battle from the onset. The best results are achieved when marketing teams work with executives to achieve results and not just hit benchmarks.

A little expectation-setting in the beginning goes a long way toward delivering success in the end. Marketers who establish themselves as consultants who work in conjunction with other stakeholders to set realistic goals and a holistic approach to realizing them are positioned well to shepherd campaigns to reach their fullest potentials.

Keeping an open dialogue with clients and educating them with context and intelligence goes much further than serving as a data wrangler. Work with executives to cut through the noise and figure out what KPIs are meaningful to achieving the desired result, and keep the rest of the numbers in their proper place and viewed from a proper perspective.

* * *

There is almost an infinite amount of data out there, but the real value (and key differentiator for agencies) is in divining insights from that data while still pushing for the primary goal of a campaign.

No baseball team can win a World Series by maximizing strikeouts if they can't also bring batters home, and scoring points only goes so far if you can't keep the other team from scoring.

Analytics are important, but only insofar as they have an impact on the KPI that gets them all the way: wins.

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Stop Drowning in Metrics and Optimize KPIs That Move the Needle

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image of Steve Bonnell

Steve Bonnell is the director of digital analytics at DRUM Agency, which focuses on creative content, media, technology, and analytics.

LinkedIn: Steve Bonnell