NEW! Listen to article

A map is a lovely metaphor for many things beyond travel logistics. But it also has limitations.

So many that a Polish American philosopher and engineer penned the phrase "the map is not the territory" to remind us that abstractions of a thing are not the thing itself—and never can be.


Although it feels handy to have a marketing dashboard to chart your progress, metrics are not the thing itself.

We have grown accustomed to measuring everything. It if can be measured, why not? Or so the feeling goes based on the tendencies of modern marketers.

But just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

Messy Metrics

In the world of marketing attribution and metrics, we're unfortunately crossing territory without updated maps.

I reached out to some folks I respect to ask them what they think about metrics and attribution:

"Attribution is dead. Not 'kinda, sorta still alive, just more challenging.' No, it's dead. And that's if it was ever alive (which I no longer really believe). The reasons people buy, and the true buyer journeys are so complex, multifaceted, and influenced by so many factors, that saying, 'This ad, and this ad alone led to these seven conversions,' is ridiculous." —Rand Fishkin, SparkToro

"Marketing work is just really freaking difficult to fit into a neat chain of cause and effect. We want to show that our work matters. So we build out attribution models and craft dashboards that give us the prettiest numbers. Something to point to and say, 'Look, we made this happen.' But when we chase those pretty numbers or clear-cut trend graphs, we lose out on actually delivering value to our audiences. Our graphs begin to control our marketing efforts, instead of our marketing efforts influencing the graphs." —Mariya Delano, Kalyna Marketing

Let's look at a few examples:

  • Email open rates are honestly nonsense now.
  • Website analytics—the keystone of all digital marketing—are notorious for undercounting and categorizing referrals as dark traffic.
  • Attribution is dicey because rules are based on personal preference.

Metrics are as messy as the sticky fingers of a five-year old, and just as mysterious. Is that dirt or chocolate or... do I not want to know?

When your dashboard is based on questionable metrics (hello, LinkedIn Ads video "views")...

When your metrics are so full of noise there's no clear signal...

When every sale has multiple sources of influence...

Then you realize you're charting something on a map that doesn't match up to reality.

Specific examples?

Website analytics show only traffic from Matomo in campaigns, and the link shortener shows way more clicks than the campaigns show. Wat?

Threads traffic shows up in website analytics, but as Instagram. Seriously, Meta?

Outcomes and Impact

So how do you update your map to better match the territory?


In National Treasure, maps are more than what they seem if you have the right tools and knowledge combined. The most creative problem-solving moments center on things' not being what they seem:

  1. The Declaration of Independence is more than a priceless historical document.
  2. The map hidden on the back is not really a map.
  3. The secret message is more than it first appears.
  4. The Benjamin Franklin glasses (!) are more than a curiosity.
  5. The combination of different lenses helps you focus on the right outcome.

When we look at our map, let's apply a different lens and think about outcomes and impact instead of effort and output.

What is your marketing WHY—the purpose of your marketing? And how does that translate into a SMART goal to define successful outcome or impact? Are there different ways that plays out at a macro/organizational level vs. a micro/campaign level? Great, separate that stuff!

Your macro goals and related metrics should be things that affect the entire organization (especially Sales). If you've been able to track a correlation between a leading indicator (an outcome such as engaged website visits, however you define that) to a lagging indicator (an impact through MQL to SQL conversion or closed-won sales), it's likely worth tracking both.

Want to work on campaign level details? Cool—that's an inset-detail view on your map. Your micro details can be great to inform trend lines on your outcomes, as well as measure overall reach. Quarterly analysis plus 6- or 12-month rolling averages are a helpful lens for trends. More frequently than that, and you're talking about campaign optimization. And that's more akin to scouting out parts of the actual territory than looking at a map. But it's also important and helps inform small beta tests and learn adventures on output.

Flexing between the macro and micro views, along with scouting, gives you a fuller picture over time. Understanding enough context to decode and uncover the right next step is based on learning (over time) through scouting.

Update your dashboard map to chart a few key signals, and know that nothing was ever as magically trackable as we imagined it was.

"Old School is the new way forward" is the radical thought Rand Fishkin shared with me that sums this up pretty well: "It's going to feel weird and unnatural until we get used to it (again)." He then pointed to a likely inevitable outcome: "Big ad networks will force marketers to pay for the privilege of 'implied' attribution."

Be flexible, because the territory is changing all the time:

  • Your team may change the attribution model.
  • New social channels are popping up seemingly nonstop.
  • Third-party cookies are eventually going away.
  • Continued privacy legislation in the US is inevitable.

All of us will learn new ways of measuring things as martech adapts. Because martech always adapts.

New and better methods to chart the territory will emerge. Keep on scouting that real world territory of campaigns and the basecamp of your website. Use your outcome-focused lens, identify credible signals, and let go of the noise. And always remember the humans behind the screens.

In that light, here's a closing thought from Mariya Delano:

"When we lose sight of what we're actually trying to measure and why we decided to measure it in that particular way...we lose the very people who we were trying to reach. At the end of the day, every single quantifiable metric you can measure is an abstraction of the impact you've had on breathing humans that interacted with your brand. So you can keep fiddling with the dashboard, or you can go straight to the source."

More Resources on Outcome-Based Marketing

Outcomes Are In: Why Outcome-Based Marketing Is So Successful

PR Measurement Is All About Outputs, Outtakes, and Outcomes: Shonali Burke on Marketing Smarts [Podcast]

The 10 Biggest Mistakes Marketers Make—No. 2: Using Metrics That Don't Matter to Top Management

Enter your email address to continue reading

Stop Trying to Measure Everything, Use an Outcome-Focused Lens Instead

Don't's free!

Already a member? Sign in now.

Sign in with your preferred account, below.

Did you like this article?
Know someone who would enjoy it too? Share with your friends, free of charge, no sign up required! Simply share this link, and they will get instant access…
  • Copy Link

  • Email

  • Twitter

  • Facebook

  • Pinterest

  • Linkedin

  • AI


image of Cathy Colliver

Cathy Colliver is the marketing director at Test Double, a software consulting agency. She loves simplifying challenges, and her marketing career spans five industries. Cathy volunteers in arts and education.

LinkedIn: Cathy Colliver

Twitter: @CathyColliver