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Do these metrics make me look fat?

11th Jul 2017
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ScaleAfter I had my third kid I discovered that I was fat.

Not in a "do these jeans make my butt look big" way, but in an objective, measurable way ('cos that's what I'm all about).  My BMI was officially above "normal" and into "overweight".

So being a researcher, I looked into various strategies for shedding some of those pounds.  I landed on a system that centered on counting "points".  You were allowed to eat a certain number of points a day and every food had a certain amount of points associated with them.  When you exercised, you earned points for the effort. 

I was measuring points in and out and my metric of success was the number on the scale every week.

But here is a truism about any kind of data collection attached to behavior:  You will optimize for whatever you are measuring.

I discovered that I was not choosing the right metrics.  As a result, I was nudging myself to behave in a way that was not optimal for my health.

I was choosing processed food over natural food because they had lower points.  Also, I avoided lifting heavy weights because that made the scale move up, not down.  I was indeed losing weight and meeting my metrics, but I wasn't getting healthier.

Realizing something was a little off, and being a data geek, I switched my metrics and found that my behaviour naturally followed.  Now my metrics are gym performance, body fat percentage, sleep quality, and energy level.  Not weight.  And I focus on food quality.  Not points or calories.  My health is better than it ever was, and I totally rock those jeans now.

If you are using web analytics tools out of the box, you are probably making this same mistake, and the health of your organization is suffering as a result.

Most people use page views (number of visitors) and bounce rates (the percentage of people who leave after a very short time) as the fundamentals of their web metrics.

More  page views = good.

High Bounce rate = bad.

At first glance, this seems reasonable.  If those numbers are good, it means that lots of people are coming to your site and are finding a reason to stay.

But stop and think a minute about whether or not these metrics are the best ones for you.

One of my clients recently was a hospital and the web department was diligently reporting on page views and bounce rates.  As a result, they had a lot of staff writing content that they hoped would generate more page views, which it did.  Here's the problem with that.  A lot of their page views were from locations that they did not serve.  That meant that many of their visitors actually had no possibility of ever becoming customers.  The website visitors that they were attracting from Australia didn't contribute to their business at all.

At the same time, they were missing much more important metrics.  For example, how successful were people who wanted to pay their bills online?  Turns out - appallingly unsuccessful.  They had only a 2% conversion rate.  That means that out of every 1000 people who tried to give them money, only 20 were able to do so.   Getting revenue affects their bottom line much more than page views.  However, the team was not reporting that number, so they were not doing anything to improve it.

Let me say that again in case you missed it.  980 people out of 1000 who tried to give them money, were unsuccessful.  They had to call tech support for help and wound up either paying over the phone, or mailing in a check.  Think about what that inefficiency cost their business!  Not to mention creating customer frustration.  And yet, somehow that number didn't seem as important as page views.

Here is the key point.  When you set up your Google Analytics, make sure that you think carefully about which metrics will mean a healthier business for you.  Most of the time, it won't be page views.  Yes, you will have to do some customization of your analytics, but then you can be content in the knowledge that you are measuring the things that will push you in the direction of making your organization healthier and more profitable.

If you find yourself caring more about web site visitors who will never be customers, than about letting your actual customers give you money. That is a sign you need to rethink your metrics.

photo credit: Alan Cleaver (creative commons commercial license)

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