Don’t let KPIs kill your instinct

Posted on June 6, 2013

Republic Publishing’s MD James Beechinor-Collins says spreadsheets can sap your intuition

One of my kids came home from school the other day and announced that she was awarded a team point. For listening. She said it was her learning target for the day and I should be proud. I hung my head. KPIs (or PIPS, to give them their proper name) have been around in schools since the early 90s. I can’t help but feel that the message has become more than a little mixed as they’ve proliferated into the workplace.

Since we started creating digital content in 2007, we’ve worked hard to understand the most relevant value metrics for the brands we work with. Despite running in excess of 80 different projects over the last six years, we at Republic Publishing have yet to be met with the same, clear set of objectives at the start of a project.

Developing our own metrics

Now the push for industry-standard metrics is starting to gather some serious pace. We’ve already had most of the discussions everyone else is going to be enjoying over the coming months and years, and are now close to establishing our own set of cross-client, cross-discipline content marketing KPIs. They’re not rocket science, but having toyed with most of the options over the years, we’ve established three which have an attributable value for the brand, a clear measure for us and our performance and easy-to-establish targets for a project’s evolution.

What’s more, they’re cross-discipline. They work as well for editorial content as they do video content, for websites as they do for social networks, and are relatively easy to administer.

We’ve never had as much access to data, but neither have we as an industry struggled so much to distill that data into genuinely useful, meaningful, information.

Recently, whilst establishing objectives and KPIs with a brand we work with, we were offered 17 different metrics to measure our performance in detail. Not to mind that these 17 metrics left out some pretty crucial elements of what we were doing. We’ll get over that.

We had a healthy debate about both the metrics and the values within them and have now reached a sensible consensus on 15 of them (we threw the other two out). An actual set of metrics we both feel comfortable committing to.

For us, there’s a healthy challenge to deliver the targets. For the brand there’s a clear measure of the impact our work has on delivering tangible value to the business.

I don’t have an issue with signing up for measurement, or having some skin in the game, as it were. We’re confident in our ability to not only deliver, but to blow those targets out of the water. But rather than fixate upon them, nail them to our office wall or worship them like some data-driven deity, I’m going to slide them into the bottom drawer and forget about them for the next six months.

Why? Because targets are great for monitoring progress from point A to point B, but use them as a guide and we’ll all be in trouble.

Instinct is the thing which will, and should, take us where we need to get to. Targets (and read into that, KPIs) are simply a measure of whether we achieved success or not.

Remember what you are trying to achieve

Measuring what you’re doing should never be confused with doing what you’re doing. When I was a magazine editor, we had no data to help us in making crucial decisions which would ultimately impact our overall performance (did we sell any magazines, or not). We had to rely on simple gut instinct. Proper finger in the air, see which way the wind is blowing, stick it all on red, have a hunch stuff.

Even so, we managed (for the most part) to outdo our targets over the course of the year. Of course, we’d have good months (“Let’s go to the pub”) and we’d have bad months (“Let’s start looking for new jobs”) but on the whole, after setting out our stall at the start of the year, somehow, by the end of the year we’d hit pretty much where we set out to.

And so it is with our current targets. My advice to the team is simple. Establish where you think you ought to be. Write it down. Put it away. Then get on with it. If you haven’t got the instinct to get from A to B without looking at a spreadsheet, then perhaps content marketing isn’t for you.

As for my kids? They have a copy of the times tables and a dictionary. I’m pretty sure they’ll do fine.

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