Are You Sure Your KPI is a KPI?

Invasion of the fraudster metrics

Most of us have been in a meeting of this sort. You’re working out the details of a program and the conversation turns towards metrics and the need for KPIs. By the end of the meeting you have a list, somewhere between thirteen and twenty-seven different KPIs. Someone is tasked with putting together an excel sheet to track everything and you commence an ongoing saga of trying to visualize the results onto less than three slides in a PowerPoint deck.

Drop the PowerPoint and step away from the Excel file.

I don’t need to know your brand, or your tactic or the planned executions.; but I can tell you right now that you’re doing it wrong.

If you’ll let me help you, it’s time to stop the KPI insanity.

All KPIs are metrics, but not all metrics are KPIs

KPI - you keep using that word.  I don't think it means what you think it means.

Or put another way; not all things that can be counted, count. KPI is an acronym for Key Performance Indicator. It is the one measure that shows that you have achieved what you set out to achieve.

It is natural for people to want to include more. When you see that jam-packed PowerPoint slide filled with charts and graphs and tables filled with numbers, it feels all very impressive.

Look at all the numbers! Everyone must have worked ever so hard for there to be this many numbers and charts moving up and to the right.

But it’s all just surface razzle dazzle. Those that know what they’re doing are going to be less than impressed by attempts to baffle your way through the numbers. And those people tend to be C-suite execs with their fingers on the purse strings for next quarter’s budget.

You can’t set your KPIs before you set your objectives

Putting the cart before the horse

Most people don’t realize this – as everyone tends to skip past terms of service and just check off ‘OK’ – but it is a basic part of every single employment agreement that anyone who recommends setting KPIs before objectives are identified must go up to the rooftop on a rainy day and run forty laps around the circumference of the building.

Okay. So, maybe not. But it would certainly stop short the useless exercise of defining what success looks like in advance of defining what you’re trying to do.

A KPI is a metric that the program hinges on; a metric inexorably linked to your objectives. When you look at your KPI it is a no-brainer as to whether you achieved what you set out to do.

 Your KPI is a unit of measure, not a specific measure

When asked, “What are some good marketing KPIs if the objective is to create a positive association with our brand?” you will never find that the answer is 27. Or 1.32. Or 1,589.

Your KPI will always be a unit of measure, and not a specific number. The specific number is your target or goal.

For example, if you ran a shop, your KPIs might be cash flow and net profit. These are the indicators that your business is thriving or not. Within cash flow you would set a specific number that ensures you can maintain operations as a target. If you have an eye on expansion you would set a goal within net profit that will allow you to achieve that expansion.

You should be able to count your KPIs on one hand

If you need more than one hand to count your program’s KPIs, then you have let a metric slip in masquerading as a KPI. You need to be ruthless with respect to KPIs and slice out measures that people toss in because, “wouldn’t it be interesting to know?

Your KPIs should all fall into the category of, “we absolutely have to know.” Rare is the program that needs more than one measure to determine pass or fail. I’ve yet to encounter a program that truly required more than a half-dozen measures to track performance.

The easiest way for you to suss out the frauds is to honestly ask yourself and your team, “If this KPI came in really high, or came in ridiculously low, would it change our reaching the objective?”  If it doesn’t matter, then it shouldn’t be counted.

Why does it even matter?

Why get picky about what’s a metric and what’s a KPI and if they ought to be numbers or not? What’s all the hub-bub?

Information is vital. If your information is poor, then your decisions will likewise be poor. If you end up, like all too many of us do, tossing aside all of the information because it’s just a hodge-podge of number soup you end up acting purely on instinct and gut-feelings.

Steering the ship based on your gut may keep you free and clear of the rocks most of the time, but the bigger your ship and the more people you carry along with you, the more tragic a single misstep can become.

As vital as information is, however, every dollar spent on watching what you’ve done is a dollar you can’t spend doing something.

Instead of measuring everything, the smart business person looks to what they are trying to achieve and focuses their resources towards measuring that and measuring it well.

The ROI of Measurement: What’s That Information Worth to You?



When it comes to public relations and marketing, there is a lot of focus on determining the return on investment (ROI) of tactics, campaigns and strategies. But what is often missing is the ROI for the measurement itself.

As a brand manager, you can feel pretty burnt when you’ve devoted thousands of your budget this quarter to research and what comes back is a spiral bound pamphlet of a PowerPoint deck spewing a lot of things that you already had a strong gut feeling for.

It can be pretty daunting when your agency recommends a measurement approach that’s in the tens of thousands. Those are dollars that could be directed towards additional tactics.

How do you know that your research has any real value? How do you know that the information is worth what you are paying for? What is the ROI for having research and measurement in place?

This is actually a very straightforward calculation to make. You simply need to answer:

  • How confident are you that you are making the right decision?
  • How much do you stand to benefit from being correct?
  • What will it cost you if you are wrong?

Say you’re running a million dollar campaign to drive trial of a product; the goal being to bring in new customers. You’re targeting a demographic several steps removed from yourself and so while you are liking the direction that’s being taken there is some doubt whether it will resonate with your intended customers.

The value of having perfect information, of making all the right decisions and no strategic missteps is the sum of the costs and the gains:

  • The cost of being absolutely wrong is $1M: the cost of your campaign.  You spend your money, keep yourself, your team and your agencies busy for a couple of weeks and change nothing.
  • With the lifetime value of a customer and knowing the intended goals for reach and conversion of the campaign you can estimate what you stand to gain if your decisions are right. In this example, we’ll say that comes to $5M.

Suddenly the value of information becomes very tangible in dollars and cents and you can begin to make informed decisions as to whether it is worth the cost to pursue.

There is no such thing as perfect information.  But we all have a solid sense of how confident we are before pulling the trigger.

If you were 95% certain that you were making the right call, then there is very little value in further validation. But if you’re making a call that will determine millions of dollars and you’re feeling it’s a coin toss as to whether you’re right, suddenly a few thousand to validate those decisions becomes the bargain of the century.

Contextual Advertising is Still Klunky and Dumb

Antique Robots

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” – John Wanamaker

Of course we know that it’s more than half that’s wasted. Direct mail is considered successful if you get one out of a hundred to convert. The marketing team high-fives one another and everyone goes home for the day if you get one out of a thousand to convert on a digital ad. With radio and television, most often we don’t even bother to track conversion and simply take the number of eyeballs the ad passed in front of as a job well done.

The reason most of these ads don’t work is because of context. No matter how many flower filled fields with dancing women in white dresses that you show me, as a single man I am not going to be purchasing your sanitary napkins. I don’t care how much blue water you demonstrate it absorbs.

When your brand shows me an ad that doesn’t relate to me, it is an interruption and most likely an annoyance. You are wasting money to annoy me. But when I see an ad for something I am currently in the market for, suddenly your ad becomes of interest. In many ways I may not even see it as an ad, but treat it as content.

It’s for that reason that I am a huge fan of contextual advertising. After visiting the Radian6 website, I am met with ads for the Salesforce Marketing Cloud and the Dreamforce Conference. I am much more likely to view these things. I may even be pleased for the reminder of the upcoming conference.

I look forward to the day where the web of data I leave behind me is such that I am served up ads for a new computer around the time that my current one starts creeping towards obsolecence. That I’m shown ads for venues and restaurants in a far away city based on the airline tickets I purchased. That my lack of purchasing a new winter coat this year triggers the serving up of ads for a coat early next year.

But right now we are in early days and much of what exists in contextual advertising is klunky and dumb. It’s like the early days of keyword matching where ads for new cars would be matched against news stories of horrific traffic accidents. And so much could be solved if the ad networks knew two simple things:

  • Have I ever clicked on any of these ads?
  • Did I make the purchase?

I bought a new drafting chair from Staples. I booked a trip for my son and I to visit Disney World. I bought my son a quadcopter for Christmas.  All of these actions and the online researching before purchasing have triggered contextual ads to show up as I browse the web.

Why am I still being served up ads for office chairs? I only need the one. It just arrived this week. There’s not a chance in the world I’m going to click on any of those ads. Why is Disney still extolling me about the very deal I took advantage of? I booked that trip in October. It’s paid for. A done deal. I’m not going to book another one. Why am I being shown the same image of the very same toy I purchased repeatedly? It was quite clearly a one-time purchase and I’ve not clicked again on any of those ads since making it.

These ads are no longer a helpful reminder or a gentle nudge to get me from consideration to conversion. They are an annoyance. And in the case of Disney and the toy, came close to tipping off my son on impending gifts.

Along with purchasing the chair I picked up some notepads, pens and pencils. I browsed for illustration board and art pads and glanced at the graphics tablets. If Staples waited a week or two and then started feeding me ads for some of those consumables, there would be a much better chance I’d view that as pleasant serendipity instead of the annoyance at being asked yet again, “so ya wanna buy an office chair?

It would be nice if I were offered ads for other attractions and places to visit in Florida rather than the same Disney offer that ceased being of relevance to me a couple of months ago.

And after more than a month of not clicking on any ads for quadcopters it would be nice if they just went away.

I realize that rules around privacy and silo’d data-sets are the cause of much of this stupidity. But a stupid ad, clumsily presented, is almost more of a hindrance than the blind shot-gun approach we’ve taken in the past. Because it is so close to what we want but not-just-quite it ramps up the ‘creepy‘ factor. It’s mired in the uncanny valley where we are so aware that this is an attempt at serendipity that it fails to be serendipitous. It trumpets ‘we are watching you‘ louder than it suggests, ‘wouldn’t your life be better with?‘. So long as that hurdle can’t be crossed we will continue to throw away more than half of our dollars and the kicker is we will know exactly which half that is.

Patrick Stewart and the Tralfamadorian Greeting

Patrick Stewart at Comicapalooza, Houston 2013 - photo by Randall Pugh
image by Randall Pugh

When the media was only a handful of channels, only the most significant of stories would find their way to us. Massive life changing events that could only be described with, “Oh the humanity.”

The everyday stories. The things that we tell each other over a drink or at the evening dinner. The little anecdotes that we experience. Those were always too small to reach the media save in drips and drabs. The disease of the week. The consumer advocacy tale. The plucky little kid that started a bottle drive. The elderly gent blowing out the candles on his hundredth birthday. But really they were just fillers. Noise to fill the air between commercial breaks because not every day was an “oh the humanity” day.

These stories and happenings would be just memories to the few people who witnessed, and those witnesses may share the tale when the context was right or when trying themselves to fill the time with a prior more interesting event. And once you’ve relayed the tale to those that you know and they’d heard it once, twice, a dozen times too many, it would simply become a memory. And then it would be gone.

Take a moment to watch this video.
And then read Heather Skye’s own words recounting the event. And then finally watch this last video.

The advent of digital media and the ability to distribute it through social channels is freeing these stories from their temporal and geographical and anecdotal limitations. You did not need to be in Houston last weekend in order to catch this particular moment. You did not have to be a friend of one of the people, and happen to have mentioned Star Trek or X-Men, sparking the “did I tell you about the time I saw Sir Patrick Stewart” story. I caught this tale on Facebook, from a friend Mike Wood. Mike had seen the story on Gawker and posted it. The author of the post on Gawker picked it up from GeekoSystem. None of these people were in Houston this weekend and none of them are friends of Heather. But the author on GeekoSystem found the YouTube video, shot by Oswald Vinueza and posted by Heather.

Through that video and Eugene Lee’s photos and Heather’s words the moment was preserved.

Heather was never at the book launch for ‘Created Equal’, where the actor spoke quite movingly about his own personal experience with domestic violence. But someone from Amnesty captured the moment on video and posted it to YouTube in 2009. Heather only came across the video a couple of months ago but says, “After seeing Patrick talk so personally about it I finally was able to correctly call it abuse, in my case sexual abuse that was going to quickly turn into physical abuse as well. I didn’t feel guilty or disgusting anymore. I finally didn’t feel responsible for the abuse that was put upon me. I was finally able to start my healing process and to put that part of my life behind me.

People opine about the disconnection that our devices and networks create. People talk about living the life through the viewscreen of a smartphone or tablet instead of in the moment. Would they really choose the world in which these were words and moments that none of us would have had the opportunity to share in? Too small for the evening news and unlikely for Heather’s words to find their way into any magazine or paper. Trapped in the minds and photo albums of the few who happened to have been there in that room, at that moment.  Would they be happier for these moments to be transient experiences, fleeting and then gone?

The people who tweet and instagram and film and live blog and check-in or status update aren’t missing out on the moment. They are preserving it and sharing it and making it more than just a memory.  I think that Heather’s life is better for having been able to share the moment from that book launch from 2009. I know that I’m glad to have been able to share in Heather’s moment with Sir Patrick Stewart. I hope that you’re all enriched a little bit from my having shared these moments and that you go on to share across your own platforms and networks.  Thanks to social media we are all of us unstuck in time and space and able to experience this together whether it was before, or now, or still to come.

Should Have Sent A Poet: A Word In Favour Of The Space Program

If you’re Canadian, you likely saw a clip of Commander Chris Hadfield’s cover of Space Oddity on the evening news. For the rest of the world it’s been bouncing about on social networks to the tune of several million views.

Even Bowie noticed and tipped his hat in the Commander’s direction. Praise indeed to catch the notice and approval of the artist you’re covering.

Now, obviously Hadfield wasn’t sent into space to jam. During his time on the station he engaged in 130 different experiments, and even helped set a station record for over 71 hours in a week devoted to scientific experimentation. During his free moments, Commander Hadfield was gracious enough to reach out to those of us on Earth and share what life is like in a little tin can floating far above the world. We got to learn how a zero gravity environment impacts simple biological aspects of life like crying, or trimming our nails or eating dinner. He shared his amazing view through hundreds of thousands of photographs. And in his offtime he played the guitar.

Now a brief word about the instrument. The guitar was a $100,000 payload, back when it was delivered into space in 2001, it’s purpose to provide a creative outlet for the astronauts to aid in their psychological well-being. All work and no play

But the Space Oddity video being the most publicised aspect of the Commander’s journey has raised the same questions that have dogged the space program since before President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University declared, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Why go to space? Why waste billions of dollars to dump new garbage up into orbit or learn that there are rocks on Mars? There is no shortage of problems on Earth that need our dollars to solve so why fritter those dollars away when there are so many in need? In short: what good is a space program when there are empty bellies and injustice here on Earth?

Continue reading Should Have Sent A Poet: A Word In Favour Of The Space Program

Legally Right isn’t the Same as Ethically Right: Glee and Jonathan Coulton

Jonathan Coulton

Brands would do well to take note of the dust-up between large network FOX and Jonathan Coulton.

Glee is a musical comedy-drama about a high school glee club. The characters of the show are often at the bottom of the pecking order among the student body, being tossed into dumpsters or having slushies thrown in their face are frequent occurrences  Key themes of the show are overcoming bullying and choosing to do the right thing despite all adversity. The show features covers of songs across a wide range of musical genres, and often features covers of mashups or a cover of a cover.

Jonathan Coulton is a singer and songwriter whose music is primarily about geek culture and has made use of the Internet to build an audience. If you’ve heard his work it was likely in the end credits to the Portal games or one of his thing-a-week songs like Code Monkey or Re: Your Brains or his unique cover of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s Baby Got Back. And it is that cover where Jonathan and Glee cross paths.

Jonathan learned that episode 4×11 of Glee would be featuring a cover of his Baby Got Back. It would seem more than a cover, though, as the timing and instrumentation of Glee’s version seems to mirror Coulton’s almost exactly; suggesting that the original recording was appropriated. The song aired and FOX through the Glee Facebook page began promoting the sale of the music on iTunes where, collectively, Glee track sales are in the millions of dollars. It’s important to note that outside of any question of financial compensation, Jonathan was never contacted and although one report has the script actually saying “Jonathan Coulton’s Baby Got Back” there has been no credit on the show or public acknowledgement by Fox that the arrangement was Coulton’s. Without any credit or even a link pointing to his site, Jonathan is told through back channels that he should just be happy with the exposure he’s getting.

Now, FOX is within their legal rights to have used the song, and there was no legal obligation to involve Jonathan in any way. there is a question as to whether the recording is Jonathan’s or not. In all likelihood it is, but the time, expense and aggravation of going toe to toe with the stable of lawyers make it an unlikely pursuit for an indie artist. So effectively FOX is on firm legal grounds. The legal department would be rubber stamping this as completely kool and the gang. But the actions were not that of a good citizen. The actions did not reflect the brand of the show. FOX played the role of large burly jock throwing a cold slushy into Coulton’s face.

FOX has been taking a keep quiet and ride it out approach, but Coulton’s fans are not forgetting. Posts to the Glee Facebook page calling for recognition and apologies to Coulton continue. Coulton himself has shown himself to be a class act. First by calling for restraining by his fans, and insisting this not be a war between his audience and Glee’s. Second, by releasing a Baby Got Back (In the Style of Glee), a cover of Glee’s cover of his cover on iTunes, with a promise to donate the proceeds to charity. The story reverberates through the geek and Internet press and is filtering its way into the mainstream.

FOX can hope to ride out this media cycle and hope that it’s forgotten, but there are a number of events that will keep this story recurring. Jonathan has not yet determined if he is going after FOX legally for the appropriation of the recording. It’s my hope that he doesn’t, because we’re all better off with Coulton making and recording songs as opposed to wasting away hours in meetings, depositions and hearings. But whichever choice he makes dredges the story back to the forefront. Then there are the results of his clever cover of the cover of the cover. If it surpasses the Glee recording in sales, if it makes any significant amount of money, it becomes a story with further amplification by way of the charities being supported. FOX is painted as the money grubbing thief and Jonathan as the hero artist. It’s a David and Goliath story to fill empty column inches pretty much any point. Never mind what will happen if this season features another legally appropriate but ethically sketchy use of an artist’s work.

FOX may try to issue a non-apology. We’re sorry you’re offended but we didn’t do anything wrong. That works when you’re on a firm foundation of trust with your intended audience and are standing with the angels, and I don’t know if either is the case when we’re talking about FOX. In this case it will merely fan the flames.

You can be legally right in a court of law, but it won’t help you in the court of public opinion. And at the end of the day, it is that court of public opinion that is the make or break for a brand. A brand is nothing save for the perception of what it represents.

What should FOX do? If I were driving the ship, here is what I would recommend:

  • Issue an apology. A real apology that acknowledges that what was done in the past was wrong, and will not be repeated. This apology should be issued not just to Coulton but to all artists whose works have been pulled into the show. Make it clear that while within the legal rights to act as it has, the show has a responsibility to do more than just the minimum legal requirement. 
  • Show how things will change. I would make it a written policy that all artists permission is sought before the use of a cover, that credit is given both in the show itself and on the tracks via song title or other metadata, and include base financial compensation.

In my opinion those are the only moves FOX can take that will do away with the stream of displeased fans who are having trouble reconciling the brand of their favourite show with the behind the scenes actions. What’s more it will completely win over those who have turned away and possibly win over new fans.

I’m no longer the ninety-nine per cent

I typically fall into the ‘9’ under the 90/9/1 rule. That is, 1% create content, 9% add to, share or comment upon said content, and 90% consume the content. Mostly I’m part of the 9%, but I do have times where I jump up into that 1%.

Screen capture of circa 2003
Screen capture of circa 2003

I’ve been sharing my thoughts and opinions online since 1997, through USENET and forums, blog posts and comments, tweets,  status updates and various social gestures. But my first real addition of content came way back in 2001 with a tripod site from which I used to post illustrations and short comics. But when tripod folded their Canadian domains, I got the shove I needed to carve out my own little slice of the Internet and The Elusive Fish became a dot com.

June of 2003 was the first blog post to my own domain. That post detailed the lead-up to the site’s launch; the hard drive crash that ate several months of illustrations, stories and site designs. At the time my site was very much a hub for sharing my art and the occasional rant in essay format.  The majority of my blogging was reviews of other’s works, personal musings and discussion of my craft.

screen-capture of circa 2004
screen-capture of circa 2004

By 2005 I had taught myself the basics of PHP and the site made it’s first major shift; from a hub for my stories and illustrations to a promotion of my creative services. I’d been moonlighting as a web designer and work was picking up. There was a definite shift from personal musings to business punditry in my blogging.  In 2006 I shifted from my Blogger template to WordPress and made what would be the last public overhaul of the design.

screen capture of circa 2006
screen capture of circa 2006

The blog template was designed so that I could incorporate a sketch into each post. The idea was to keep me active in my illustration work at a time when most of my energies were being devoted to coding websites and toiling in the PowerPoint mines. Unfortunately the need to have an illustration with each post ended up acting as a mental roadblock. When I didn’t feel I had a clever idea for an illustration or the energy to throw another couple of hours drawing something, I would skip posting anything.

2009 I had begun the process of converting my entire site to a custom-built wordpress template. I’d started a repository of ever-green illustrations so that the blog could still serve as that impetous to illustrate but not serve as a block if I fail to put pen to paper. But then it was all pushed to the back burner, and then pretty much shelved as personal issues overwhelmed my hours outside of work.

unpublished theme for circa 2009
unpublished theme for circa 2009

I made a number of attempts over the years to pull it together but rarely had more than enough time to review the code I’d put together before some new event distracted me from creating anything new.

I finally realized that the site had become an exercise in shaving the yak. I couldn’t blog until I finished the template and I couldn’t finish the template until I patched and updated what had changed in the intervening months and I couldn’t do that until, and then not that until, until until until. Always something standing in the way.

I was still commenting, updating and kibitzing on various social networks, but I had ceased to be a creator and had become just a talkative member of the audience. The only thing to be done was a fresh start.

I’ve wiped all previous code and files clean and I’m starting from a fresh, blank canvas. A fresh install of WordPress 3.5 and the barebones twentytwelve theme. I’m launching myself into the air with a mess load of parts and will build the plane mid-flight. So this site will be nothing to look at for the time being, but there will be content. And over time I will cobble together the theme and add in bells and whistles. But for now you’re getting words. Thoughts. Ideas. Concepts.

This is my website. I made it mostly on my own. It is small, and broken, but still good.

Yeah. Still good.