The Cardinal Sin of Digital Measurement

Wired Innovation InsightsNote: This entry originally ran in Wired’s Innovation Insights site on March 24.

I just spent over 18 months researching and writing The Digital Media Metrics Field Guide. My previous books on online advertising and social listening took about seven months each. That’s nearly one extra year of life devoted to figuring metrics out.

It wasn’t easy. I needed every extra day.

Like you, I had to choose which metrics to cover from an ever-expanding and bewildering supply. I settled on those that most readers would come across in the course of a day. And, like you, I had very basic questions about each one that needed answering if they were to be helpful, used wisely and illuminated the impact our brands’ campaigns and digital efforts were having.

The Field Guide details 197 metrics, summarizes over 150 studies, and presents 12 expert points of view on measurement’s present and future. From all that I learned a lot about what thou shall do, and, perhaps more importantly, what thou shalt not do.

Because it’s more fun to talk about what not to do, let’s talk about the cardinal sin of digital measurement: coveting thy vendor’s measures.

Metrics from suppliers derive from their business models and assumptions about how their platform works. Views, likes, shares, social clicks, friends and such are, as media authority and mathematician Gilles Santini calls them, “endometrics.” These metrics describe a system in its terms, not according to some objective standards.

A social network that talks up the philosophy of engagement, word-of-mouth, liking, implied endorsements from friends, contacts or connections, or sharing as drivers of advertising effectiveness, for example, will capture data and report metrics along those lines. When their philosophies are promoted as “how advertising works on their platform” by themselves or by agencies, consultants or gurus, then brands quite naturally work hard to optimize one or more of the metrics available for that platform to improve their chances for success.

Consider the ubiquitous “Like.” How many times has someone said to you: “We have to get more Likes!” What, however, is the business reason why? Usually the answer is “because more Likes are better.”

Take this example: Brand X is targeting greater growth by reaching light-users, brand-switchers, and nonusers, and decides upon a campaign to increase Likes.. Separate studies by Karen Nelson-Field and United Parcel Service shows that people who Like a brand are disproportionately the brand’s “heavy users” or deal-seekers. Likers are not — as often assumed — a diverse group of people all having warm feelings towards a particular brand. Brand X’s strategy to increase Likes unintentionally risks transforming a growth play into a volume and promotion play. Undoubtedly it will achieve results but probably not the growth outcomes senior management seeks. Conversely, a brand aiming for volume gains or offering a sales promotion may find increasing Likes attractive.

Reflexively optimizing to platform philosophies and metrics puts the cart before the horse. Move that horse in front: Come to your own understanding of how a platform works for your brands, then agree upon a measurement framework; afterwards select and fit relevant vendor metrics to it and optimize those. Only then will you have metrics that measure impact, tell your story, and provide the guidance you need to reach your goals.

Have you committed this cardinal sin? The time to repent is now!

Author: stephenrappaport

I write and consult on achieving brand growth. I serve as the Global Digital Advisor for Sunstar, Inc., a global manufacturer of consumer products. I am a Senior Fellow at Wharton’s SEI Center for Advanced Studies in Management, and the author of 3 books on digital marketing and measurement.