When You Should Just Say No to Measurement


“What gets measured gets managed.”

I see so many marketing measurement-focused PowerPoints start with this famous quote – or its corollary, “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.”

Both are used to make a case for measuring everything we can. Both are typically attributed either to business strategy guru Peter Drucker or to process expert W. Edwards Deming.

Neither said either phrase. But we’ll come back to that.

Why is measurement so hard anyway?

In part, because it’s arbitrary. Measurement involves determining an incremental value (a size, length, weight, capacity, worth) for something. People have to agree on a standard for measurement, so all measures are based on someone’s notion of what the standard should be.

For example, some attribute the definition of a yard  to King Henry I of England, who set the measure as the distance between the tip of his nose and the thumb of his outstretched hand. In 1592, England’s parliament set the mile at 5,280 feet, or eight furlongs. Since furlongs were 660 feet, we got 5,280 feet in a mile. And how did we get furlongs? They were based on the length of a field a team of oxen could plow without resting. Today’s mile is based on how much a team of oxen could plow in eight days. Doesn’t that make sense? 

In his treatise Metaphysics, Greek philosopher Aristotle wrestled with how measuring quantities and qualities differ. (That might sound familiar to content marketers.) He said that quantities have equality or inequality but not degrees. (One person can’t be more 5-foot-6 inches than another person). Qualities, on the other hand, don’t have equality or inequality but do have degrees. (Someone can be more or less successful than someone else).

In marketing, identifying and agreeing on the quantity measurements to gauge effectiveness has proven to be impossible.

That doesn’t mean we don’t try. Television advertising offers a great example. At one point, people agreed that audience attention would be measured by whether the content played on the TV in the observed household. It didn’t matter if the people in the house were in rapt attention, arguing, asleep, or not even really watching. There were no degrees of difference. A quantity standard (a view is a view) was proposed, and enough people agreed on that standard to build a multibillion-dollar industry on it.

Of course, not everybody agreed then or today. What equals a view of a TV audience has been debated, negotiated, and adapted since it began. The lack of an agreed standard continues through every measurement in marketing. Whether it’s pageviews, clicks, likes, follows, leads, opportunities, conversions, or even sales, there are matters of degrees with each.

That’s because every measurement for marketing is a quality measurement. The standards – the goals – are up to us to create. But we must get people to agree to the incremental degrees of improvement we create. Who clicked? Why did they follow? How qualified is the lead? How much did it cost to get that sale? 

An identical marketing measurement may be worthless to me and invaluable to you.

That brings us back to the axiom “What gets measured gets managed.” That quote comes from academic V.F. Ridgway, and it’s only half of what he said. In 1956, Ridgway was actually warning about the consequences of reducing everything to meaningless numbers. Here’s the complete quote: “What gets measured gets managed – even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organization to do so.”

We have to stop measuring everything just because we can. It’s up to us to set the standards for measuring the quality of our success. If we’re going to the trouble to get agreement to measure anything, it should be something important.

Don’t make things matter because they’re measurable. Make them measurable because they matter.   

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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