How can you achieve success if you don’t even define it?

I have lost count of the times I have been asked to create a website, or launch an online marketing initiative – whether as a freelance external agency or as a member of the in-house marketing team – and there have been no targets set for the site or initiative to meet.

This might have been excusable in the “Wild West” heady frontier days of the web, but not any more.  Clients can at times give quite spectacularly detailed briefs – even at times over-detailed briefs – but then at the end, when you have captured their requirements I almost universally get met with a rabbit-in-headlights stare when I ask “Great: and so – what’s the point?!”

What is a site here to do? – whose needs does it meet? – what target audiences tasks does it exist to facilitate? – and what numbers or other metrics will we use to define that success?

Because one thing is for sure: in business if you don’t measure it then it don’t happen.

If we want to think of ourselves as ethical and professional online marketers then it is up to us to offer advice and consultancy whenever this issue occurs.  We should be able to offer advice on what to measure and what we should not.  For example – I hope I am speaking to the  converted when I re-iterate that measuring website hits is pointless – and that “hits” should be considered as an acronym for “how idiots track success”.

But if not – allow me to digress: any site can easily achieve unbelievably high numbers of hits – since a hit is any interaction with the server: each page, each image and each element on a page is a download from the server – and therefore one page with 9 images on it constitutes 10 hits: 10 such pages equate to a hundred hits – and yet there is only one person responsible for them. What you should instead be tracking is one or more of the following:

  • Number of unique visitors: there is still a lack of agreement  on what exactly constitutes a unique visitor, but that is mainly how to use a site’s stats to correctly arrive at a valid number for each site.  If you simply use the most pessimistic definition possible though you will never go far wrong.  A unique visitor is just that – as accurate as possible a measure of the actual unique, individual people to look at your site.  One person can come to the site many times over – hence they could generate multiple visits to the site; by the same token, if you were measuring “hits” – see above – then one person could be responsible for literally thousands of hits.  However, one person is only ever going to be responsible for one purchasing decision or one completed call to action per purchasing process.
  • Return on investment: another wonderfully cynical, real-world, brutally honest measure of a site’s success.  In simple terms: how much money has it made? – and has it made more money than it cost to build?  And don’t give me any of the feeble excuses of “it’s a campaigning site – it’s not here to sell” – fine: then tell me what you want people to do after looking at the site and then tell me how much it costs to get them to do that via other marketing channels; then I’ll subtract the cost of the undertaken-call-to-action on the website from a like on the other channel and come up with a notional saving of getting that call to action accomplished online: and bang: instantly identifiable hard cash savings from the website.  I have honestly never encountered a situation where it was impossible to quantify the financial benefit a website has delivered to an organisation, even when they were not directly involved in selling online.
  • Number of links into the site from Google: this is one of the key criteria that Google uses to decide where you sit in their listings and is very easy to work out: just perform a google search for and the results will tell you how many people link into your site.  This is the reason that most websitemasters are just a little bit – well – tarty for links.  We can’t help being promiscuous for them: it’s pure, raw Google-kudos!
  • Google pagerank: getting a higher pagerank is to me a sub-set of the getting a higher listing in Google.  It is not an end in itself – it is a way to get more people to your site to then try and sell to them and convert them into action takers or purchasers. 
  • Google listing: where you sit in Google’s search results is always, always important: if no one can find your site then all of the other measures of success discussed here become meaningless..  However – beware of only getting found for the keywords that your internal staff would think to find you under.  Almost without exception I have found these keywords to be hyper-specialised and suitable for experts in that specific industry – not for the “average bloke on the street.”  Every single business wants to think of themselves as unique and different and will almost always baulk at you optimising their site for generic keywords plus a geographic qualifier.  They will rant and froth over the fact that they do not want to be just known for “training in Biremingham” or whatever.  There are 2 strategies to deal with this:
    1 Ask them what they themselves would type in to find an equivalent type of company, and;
    2 Ask their actual customers what they would type in. 
    But be warned: these results can be truly enlightening! – instead of wasting time and effort trying to get to number 1 in Google for search terms that only the MD of a specific company would ever use, you can focus and optimize the limited SEO budget on what the target audience is actually going to search for. 
  • Number of comments on blogs / number of Twitter followers / members in Facebook group: this is all well and good – and if you are reaching a larger audience than you would offline even better.  However: it does not automatically equate to sales.  It can help get people to your site – it can help build up your online brand – it can make a lot more people aware of you – and make them aware of you in a positive way – but it still does not inevitably equate to sales, ROI or an improved conversion rate.  As such to me it is not quite as important as these metrics.  You could have 10,000 people following you on Twitter, or in your Facebook group – but if every single one of them comes to your site and then promptly leaves screaming “my eyes! – my poor eyes!” then your effective social media marketing activities have not translated over into an effective overall online marketing strategy.
  • Numbers of calls to action or purchasing decisions accomplished: this is probably the most acid test: it requires you to have defined your call to action – that is what you want people to do after looking at the site – and then implemented it and then created a method of trackign and measuring it.  This is not as easy as it looks – esxpecially for sites that are not sales driven.  If you are runnign a campaigning site, or a social media site, what precisely is it you want people to do after looking at it? – however, the very inherent difficulty in implementing this succesfully means it is amongst the most harsh and therefore truthful measures of a sites success.
  • Conversion rate: this metric builds on the unique visitors stat and the number of completed calls to action stat.  It looks at how many actual real people came to your site and actually did something.  As a result it is one of the most insanely ferocious and hard to influence key performance indicators for any site – and as a result one of the metrics I favour above all others for its sheer unrelenting, brutal honesty.  A brief “throw money at the problem” advertising binge could quite easily get more people to come to the site temporarily, or even get more people talking and blogging about it and therefore linking to it… – but unless the site actually gives visitors what they want, when they want it, and how they want it then the underlying conversion rate will not shift.  In fact in this example it could quite easily go down – as the massive influx of disinterested visitors washes into the site, looks round, decides it is not for them and therefore dilutes your existing conversion rate.  In the right hands this is a truly deadly tool: it can be used to kill unnecessary advertising campaigns and even show which pages are better aligned with your visitors needs.

Not all of these measurement methods are going to be useful for every site – but some combination of them implemented on your site should make it better.  And one thing is for sure: if you don’t define success, and measure it with verifiable numbers then you will never achieve it.

Online, digital and social media marketing expert in Birmingham

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