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Don’t forget to look out the window (Or: Why metrics may not tell the whole story)

Please welcome guest blogger Briana Tomkinson, a strategist and one of our trusted partners.

Vancouver is known for mild winter weather. We have so few ‘snow days’ that when the white flakes fall it is a big event. The city pretty much shuts down for just a few centimetres of snow. Cars careen off roads, kids stay home from school, office workers leave early or work from home. Our preferred strategy is to hole up with a blanket and wait until it all melts away. After all, most “snow days” turn to rain days pretty quickly, and there are only a few snowy days each year.

So when I woke up a few days ago and saw white stuff out the window, I was surprised. People make such a big fuss over snow here that usually even a mild flurry is preceded by excited/anxious tweets and breathless weatherman predictions. I checked the Weather Network app on my phone to find out if the snow would stick – I needed to know whether to send the kids to school dressed for rain or snow.

Contrary to what I saw out the window, the app said there would be no snow – or rain – all day. In fact, there was not even a chance of precipitation in the forecast. I actually have three weather apps on my phone, and each one reassured me that there was zero chance of rain, let alone snow. Outside, the flurries grew thicker, and the snow started to pile up on the road. My apps may have been in denial, but I decided to trust what my eyes told me. I sent the kids to school in snowpants.

Sometimes what the numbers tell you is different than what you observe. Measurement tools are great indicators of progress and trends, but they are only indicators. In marketing as in life, your own observations are as important as the data you are able to collect. Sometimes, more so.

Our ability to gather data often outstrips our ability to accurately interpret it. Meteorologists are often pretty good at using data to predict the weather (except when they’re wrong), and the same is true for marketers. There are so many possible metrics to track, and unfortunately, the easiest data to gather is often not the information we need. My weather apps give me lots of data on things like wind speed and humidity levels, but it’s not really relevant to the questions on my mind when I consult the app: What should I wear? Do I need to bring an umbrella today?

The typical marketing dashboard is likewise cluttered with a whole lot of information that can be interesting but irrelevant to the fundamental questions you need to answer. A common mistake is to generate a report with too much data in it, which results in a great deal of time wasted geeking out over metrics that are the equivalent of humidity levels and wind speed, when what you really need to know is the current and forecasted temperature and overall likelihood of precipitation. Stay focused on the essential questions that matter to your business.

It is far better to track fewer variables, so you can commit to investing attention and resources to guide decision-making. Data should be actionable, not merely interesting. When you’re looking at your Google Analytics, reviewing a social media monitoring report, or looking up the latest stats on Facebook ad performance, do it with a short list of specific questions in mind, and commit to taking action based on your findings.

There are more free and low-cost tools to gather data on campaign and website performance than ever before, but even if the tools are free, measurement itself has a cost. Each irrelevant metric that you take time to study draws your attention away from essential information that deserves your focus. Adding more numbers to a report doesn’t make it more useful; in fact it can lead you to mistakenly lean too much on the wrong information when making decisions.

Keeping track of key metrics is important, but we need to remember that to validate our conclusions we need to look up from the spreadsheets and charts to observe what our customers are actually saying and doing. Sometimes we just need to look out a window.

About Jen Arbo

Jen has more than a decade of experience managing projects and coordinating teams to stay on-task and on-budget. She is an experienced event coordinator, an adept copywriter and social media community manager. You can find her on Twitter at @jenarbo