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Digital Marketing Measurement: What Data Actually Matters?

Posted April 13, 2022
Christopher Antonopoulos

Topics covered in the article:

  • The Importance of Data Storytelling
  • Common Marketing Data Pitfalls
  • Communicating the Good and the Bad
  • Understanding the Data of the Dark Funnel in Digital Marketing Measurement

Telling Stories with Data in Digital Marketing Measurment

Christopher is the Founder and CEO of Measured Results Marketing, a sales and marketing operations and technology agency. With nearly 20 years of experience, Christopher is no stranger to the revenue marketing game. But how does he describe himself?

“I’m a recovering digital marketing data junkie.”

Stories connect us all as human beings. But what do they mean in a business context? Here’s Christopher’s take:

“I don’t think of storytelling as telling your children a story when they go to bed to get them to sleep. I think storytelling is roughly about, ‘Here are the business objectives. How are you, as a marketer contributing to meeting those objectives?’

“Storytelling is about connecting what you’re doing with what the company’s goals are. So that’s, in my mind, what storytelling is: matching what you accomplished in the data (digital marketing measurement) against what the company wants to achieve and making sure you’re presenting it in a way that people can make decisions.

“If the data’s great, we may want to do more of something. If the data’s not so good, we might need to change direction or experiment.”

Storytelling helps us better understand whether the data supports or goes against a leader or team’s methods to achieve the desired outcome. It’s difficult to get the right message across because everyone thinks of data differently. Fortunately, there are specific strategies for presenting data in a way that helps get the point across correctly.

“In sales, we hear the saying ‘happy eyes’ or ‘happy ears.’ It means a salesperson has had a conversation with someone and the salesperson’s takeaway is that they are on the cusp of closing a deal. In reality, they haven’t gone through the qualification process or understood the prospect’s needs.

“It’s the same thing between marketing and data. When you see something positive–an open rate, form completion, or attendees at a webinar–it’s easy to focus on the happy data. Those positives align with the story you want to tell or the accomplishment or win you want to have.”

data story telling

The risk with focusing on what you’re excited about is not acknowledging the broader context in terms of digital marketing measurement. If leading indicators are solid, but bookings fell short, the executive team will be focused on what went wrong this quarter, so it doesn’t happen again next quarter. They’re worried about revenue.

“I know someone desperate to show results from their marketing team. They sent out an email to everyone in their database, and then they looked at whether or not someone they sent an email to bought anything in the last 12 months. There’s a lot of pressure to prove performance. Still, you have to be really careful about the desire to show success overshadowing what’s actually moving the needle or helping a company.”

Pitfalls in Digital Marketing Measurement

So, what’s one of the biggest missteps Christopher’s seen marketers make in terms of using data in digital marketing measurement?

“Marketers are really creative. I think the biggest mistake that I can say I personally made as a marketer is that I focused on the most exciting metric at that given time. Each time we did a monthly checkpoint meeting, I was all excited about what we’d accomplished, but the mistake I made was that I wasn’t consistent with the metrics I was presenting each time.

“They wanted to know trends and how we’re progressing. I wasn’t consistent about the set of metrics that I was presenting nor my approach to digital marketing measurement. And I see that’s the case in many organizations, and it’s a huge mistake.

“If you don’t show the same metrics every time with some incremental additions, then you lose credibility. You lose the ability to point to a trend and say whether we’re making progress or needing help. 

“Establish your core metrics and KPIs and always present them when measuring digital marketing. Don’t present a different set of metrics every time you have a meeting because, as I learned professionally, that’s not what the management team or the board is looking for. They want to see progress in a couple of areas and then the new things you’re doing.”

Not everyone makes the best decisions when it comes to presenting data. Some may hide things, reorient an axis, or try to make things look better than they actually are. Dishonesty is the fast track to losing all credibility with the rest of the organization. Most of the time, the mistakes are honest–although they can still be challenging to recover from.

“Gathering the right metrics when measuring digital marketing can be pretty intimidating depending on what marketing automation platform or CRM you’re using. It’s important to understand that you don’t have to be technologically savvy. It’s good if you are, but it’s okay to ask people what some of the numbers mean on your campaign, even though it may seem embarrassing. It’s better to ask a colleague or someone else you’re working with than wait until you’re presenting the data and get a bunch of questions. 

“If a number jumps out at someone, you will get questions. For example, ‘That number seems high for a webinar. Do you mean to tell me of the 200 people that attended the webinar, 150 of them are now sales prospects for the organization?’ 

“The person who balks in that scenario isn’t hiding something. They don’t understand what that number means and aren’t able to explain it. When you see a strange number, ask questions. 

“If 200 people attend our webinar, what does that mean? They logged in, but do we know if they stayed the entire time? Were there individuals invited to attend that logged on beyond who registered? Ask someone who knows the technology what an engaged contact means. It’s okay to ask someone else if you don’t know.”

As a leader, understanding what the data means and what kind of results are reasonable is critical when setting expectations with the rest of the organization. As an analyst, it’s crucial to prepare whoever presents the data to the executive team. Explain what you’re seeing, and prepare for the questions you anticipate them being asked.

When you prepare your CMO for a meeting, they’re less likely to oversell something because they didn’t quite understand it.

“From an analyst’s perspective, it’s their role to figure things out that either someone doesn’t have the capability of doing or don’t have the time to do. Translating a report or data, and taking advantage of an analyst who has the time to better understand the data is a step in the right direction to digital marketing measurement. But I’ve seen that go awry.

“Many times, our team’s analyst or business intelligence resource has done the work, and the report looks good. But if anyone is missing proper context, that’s when there is a problem. For example, I’ve seen someone report a chart trending up and to the right as a positive thing, but they presented a churn chart. It was showing people unsubscribing from the software. They didn’t interpret it or read it properly.

“I’ve been in board meetings or C-level checkpoint meetings where someone’s presenting data that someone else gave them right before they walked in. Be really careful about presenting data you don’t understand because that’s where you can get in trouble quickly. And it’s hard to recover trust once you’ve made a misstep like that.”

key to data credibility

Executives need to understand their data when measuring digital marketing impact, but it’s a shared responsibility with their analysts. Analysts need to know that they have a skill that not everyone else possesses. When someone is dealing with the same data, they can spot patterns the rest of the business will miss. It’s important to point out those patterns and not assume people have noticed them.

Communicating the Good & the Bad When Measuring Digital Marketing Efforts

When presenting data, communicate the wins–but don’t avoid the losses. As the adage goes, bad news should travel faster than good news.

“I agree with that adage. In my C-level role, I want to know what the organization or I can do something about. It’s one thing to say, ‘we did this campaign, and we got the expected results.’ I learned more from the times people said, ‘we tried this experiment, and it failed.’ That’s the scenario I need to know about right away.

“You should talk about a problem even if you don’t know the answer or the fix. That’s the second mistake. As an example, I’ll make up a campaign. We created a form, and upon completion, we’ll test sending someone the asset they requested via SMS.

“So you do that campaign, and it absolutely flopped. There were no meetings scheduled. And now you’ve got a bunch of people who are particularly annoyed about getting a text from you, even though they requested something.

“Communicating that the campaign didn’t have the anticipated results is particularly important. If you can figure out why or what you would recommend to fix it going forward, even better. But at least communicate that it didn’t work as expected right away because it builds confidence that you’re going to communicate bad news. Most people don’t realize that from a C-level perspective, we want to know that you found that mistake.

“If you don’t communicate it, then the C-level loses confidence that you can find things that are broken. Even if you don’t have the solution, communicating bad news is really important in digital marketing measurement.”

Data and the “Dark Funnel” in Digital Marketing Measurement

With privacy protection measures on the rise, the dark funnel–or untrackable engagement–is becoming more and more of a problem. So how can analysts better arm executives to communicate the reality of the dark funnel and set proper expectations around reporting?

“There are things you can track even after removing third-party cookies and not being able to build audiences in LinkedIn ( I think that’s happening in February of 2023). I would start with overall visits to your website, visits to a landing page, or subscribers to a newsletter. You can look at some data holistically as trends that will correlate to your digital marketing efforts.

“The day you publish a podcast episode, you can see how many people click on it and how long they’ve listened to it. But don’t miss out on other measurements, like visits to landing pages or visits to your website. When we send out our monthly newsletter, I see an increase in visits to the website. You can attribute that to increased awareness, even though those people didn’t click on a link in the email.

“How do you say, ‘I believe this is the right tactic to do. I believe it’s benefiting the organization.’?

“Focus the conversation on the benchmarks you can report on. Be open about not being able to track things exactly, but point out that you can see increased engagement with your brand through website visits or other means. I don’t think you want us experimenting with stopping doing podcasts and see if we have an appreciable decline in sales.’

“Most organizations will not want to risk even a slight decrease in traffic or awareness, even if it can’t be perfectly measured. That’s the conversation to have. ‘I know that there’s a benefit. I see an increase in traffic. We are seeing an increase in our pipeline and an increase in conversion rates beyond what we would normally see for sales. I can’t attribute that sale directly, but I believe the tactic is helping, and it’s not worth the risk of stopping.'”

Web traffic, social media followers, and the number of visits from an organic search for your company’s name are all ways you can measure the impact of your ‘dark funnel’ tactics. When a prospect engages emotionally with your business, they’ll seek you out. They’ll follow you because they want your content.

“The biggest impact is an increase to Contact Us form fills. If you can say, ‘We had 128 people complete our contact us form and request information on products last month, and after we ran the campaign, the form fills spiked to 156. Those are the highest converting leads our company has. Where did that come from? We didn’t increase spend on PPC. We didn’t do any other activity. It must have been from this tactic.’

“Look at your Contact Us form and the conversion rates. Most of the ‘dark funnel’ activities that you’re not directly tracking will correlate to a Contact Us form completion on your site or a conversion from a download of a piece of content. You’ll see those metrics increase. And most companies and individuals don’t think to look there for those trends.”

The Main Takeaways

Christopher summed up the key takeaways of our conversation as follows:

One is consistency. Pick and choose the numbers you want to present, then stick to them. The second thing is to present the things you find that are not working the way you expect them to, even if you don’t know how to fix them. I think that builds a lot of confidence in the team that when something breaks, you’ll know what that is. And then lastly, look at benchmarks for your website, social following, and Contact Us form fills as a proxy for things that are hard to track.”

marketing analyst creed

Christopher wrote an ebook on which metrics CEOs should ask their marketing teams about. So whether you’re a CEO or a marketer who would like to anticipate what a CEO will ask you about, you can find the book here.


For more on when digital marketing data is good enough and how to navigate executive expectations, listen to the full Revenue Marketing Report episode at the top of the article or anywhere you podcast.