Measuring Success, Not Just Numbers

“Was it a good ROI?”

“What was our reach?”

“But did it go viral?”

If you’ve ever run a digital campaign, you’ve surely encountered these three questions in one shape or another. Digital campaigners are a data-obsessed group, and often focused like a laser on numbers, numbers, numbers. Numbersare important. And quantifying results is valuable. But being “data-driven” does not absolutely mean focusing only on what we can quantify with our nifty trackers, dashboards, and monitoring tools. Digital communicators of the world – let’s get beyond numbers!

Start with the end in mind

You’ll want a clear roadmap before you embark on any digital campaign. What does success look like for you? And more importantly, why are you defining success in this way? Set your key performance indicators (KPIs) based on these questions, and think of both numerical and non-numerical KPIs. When you start with the end in mind, you can set up the right tracking mechanisms from the get-go, and be ready to set and manage expectations throughout your campaign.

Manage expectations

“The best laid schemes of mice and men…” Am I right? Have you ever had a campaign go exactly as planned at its outset? When setting up your digital campaign, it’s important to manage expectations of your team or client. This starts with the very first campaign kick-off meeting: spell out what success looks like, but also the conditions and inputs required to reach that vision of success.

What might derail this campaign? What might prevent success? What are the potential stumbling blocks you can identify up front? When launching a campaign, clarity breeds accountability, and spelling out what can be expected from a campaign – as well as what is needed from team members and clients to meet those expectations – is an essential step.

Give numbers context

“We had 250 million impressions with more than 65 million timeline deliveries!” Hooray! I think… Right?

In our attempts to show success and wow our colleagues, supervisors, and clients, we sometimes forget that numbers alone don’t change the world. Numbers need context, especially big ones. Instead of saying, “We had 250 million impressions,” contextualize the number in terms of your KPIs: “We generated 500% of our target social impressions.” Instead of saying, “We added 400 new emails,” perhaps try, “We’ve increased our subscriber list by 2%.” Big numbers can impress on a surface level, but the context is usually what demonstrates the actual value of your work.

Capture non-numerical success indicators

Ok, still with me? Now that we’ve started to break down this notion that big numbers are what you need to succeed, let’s look at some ways we might ignore numbers altogether in communicating the success of our digital campaigns.

  • Were any errors reported by recipients?
  • Did messaging reflect organizational values?
  • Did the campaign generate an earned media coverage?

Answering these questions (or other non-numerical questions about your campaign) can help you see success as something beyond just a series of numerical data points in a KPI tracker.

Do a 360-degree review

 You’re done. The campaign’s a wrap, and you’re ready to pack it in and move on to the next exciting Twitter chat, digital partnership, or online advocacy initiative. You’ve analyzed your KPIs and asked your non-numerical questions. So what’s next?

  • Debrief participants. Talk to your internal team members, institutional stakeholders, peers, and external partners. Discuss the campaign, and gather intelligence from others’ perspectives on what went well, what could have gone better, and if others see the campaign as a success.
  • Document lesson learned. Especially when we’re in “campaign mode,” it’s easy to flip from one campaign to the next. Take a moment, document the outcomes and learnings, and use this to build an even better campaign next time.
  • Be honest. Sometimes it feels necessary to make things seem a little rosier to placate a funder, a client, or a stakeholder. But over-polishing will hurt you in the long run. Honest deconstruction of a campaign can help clients or funders see what additional resources might be needed, and it can help you and your teammates identify procedural or programmatic weaknesses in your campaign. In short, honesty helps you improve, gloss helps you ignore.

You can tweet Zack at @ZackFromDC to weigh in!

This post originally appeared on the Johns Hopkins University Communication Career Blog.