8 Critical Measurement Lessons Learned from a Horrible Terrible No Good Year

An image of a man asleep with post-it notes on him, to illustrate the concept of measurement lessons after a hard year.

2021 was not a particularly wonderful year. It’s hard to do great measurement when you work from a couch with kids jumping on it. Still, measuring your results is all about learning lessons from experience, so our not-favorite year provides a golden opportunity. Here goes:

Lesson #1: Engagement as a metric destroys our mental health and your good measurement.

The use of engagement as a business metric degrades our mental and societal health. Algorithms that prioritize engagement have boosted a plague of misinformation, disinformation, rumors, and lies to the top of everyone’s news feed. As a result we’ve all become angrier at everything and each other. Since anger drives engagement and engagement drives advertising revenue, the cycle will probably only get worse in 2022. Blame Facebook, blame politics, blame human nature, but most of all blame greedy companies that profit from our discontent.

What to learn from it: First of all, stay off social media. Or a least be aware of how it manipulates you. And for your measurement, as always, measure what matters. There are business reasons why your organization communicates. (If you don’t know what they are, find out now. And read “The Measurement Revolution Manifesto: Use Business Metrics, Not Bad Metrics!”) Focus on how your efforts impact those business outcomes. Ignore any metrics that you can’t tie to business outcomes. 

Lesson #2: Culture and crises are connected.

Over the past year, whether it was oversized egos, institutional greed, or inherent naivete, the way a company was run and the nature of who ran it played a definitive role in generating crises. 2021 proved the old adage, culture trumps strategy.

What to learn from it: If your corporate culture emphasizes profit over people, greed over ethics, or growth at all costs, then you will eventually be dragged into a crisis that you can’t ameliorate. If the culprit behind your crisis is the CEO, it may be time to dust off your resume and join the great resignation. 

Lesson #3: Forget the funnel.

As we wrote back in November, the classic marketing funnel has disintegrated into a sieve. Our “target customers” are influenced by everything from the politicians they’ve contributed to, to the user interface on their websites, to how quickly a company responds to their complaints on Twitter. Even loyal customers can be lured away if they don’t feel like their complaints are heard. The customer’s journey includes no end of distracting stimuli along the way.

What to learn from it: The job of today’s communication professional is as much herding cats as it is “sharpening the message.” The best you can hope for may be to keep all your various audiences from going off message, rather than trying to maintain any consistency. Now more than ever you must measure the competition and understand how you are perceived in the marketplace.

Lesson #4: Your value is in building the organization, not tracking activities.

Unless your goals are to increase anger and bad behavior (see Lesson #1, above), engagement numbers are insufficient at best, and misleading at worst. In the minds of people who sign your paychecks, “value” means greater efficiency, lower costs, and bringing in more money or customers as a result of your communications. So if your goal is to get more people vaccinated, you can’t measure your results in terms of likes, you need to measure in terms of the vaccinated population. If you work for a non-profit, it means raising funds or getting people to change behavior to help achieve the societal good that is your mission.

What to learn from it: If you want credibility within your organization, you need to speak the language of business. Demonstrate that you’ve made progress toward the goals your organization has defined as “success.”

Lesson #5: Your goal may be survival.

As we go into 2022, people are angrier than ever (see Lesson #1, above). Mostly at big institutions that they perceive have let them down. Some of that anger and “madness” is fueled by disinformation and misinformation in social media, which you may not be able to do much about. But you can influence your organizational culture to make sure you aren’t taken by surprise when a whistleblower starts talking to Congress.

Remember that our elected representatives and their staff spend as much time on social media as the rest of us, and their standard response to a problem is to investigate the cause. Companies that are hauled in front of a Congressional hearing never do well, but the whistleblowers that reveal juicy secrets become overnight heroes.

What to learn from it: Make sure you budget for regular pulse surveys to find out what is really on people’s minds. Then address their issues with real solutions. If you are dragged in front of Katie Porter’s white board, be really, really, really prepared. Start by investigating the darkest corners of your organization’s history, before  Rep. Porter’s staff does. If you can fix the problem, then with luck you can get ahead of the crisis. And, if you do have to appear front of a hearing, do your homework on the people you are speaking to.

Lesson #6: Measure your results from the outside in.

For years communications professionals have measured their own activities and calculated returns based on the effectiveness of their campaigns. But in these tumultuous times you need to pay far more attention to your audiences and what they are seeing, feeling, and thinking about your industry.

What to learn from it: Be more like Eve Stevens and understand your audience. Listen more than you talk. Budget for pulse surveys and other ways to get feedback from your audiences. Correlate your communications activities to steps customers or employees take toward goals.

Lesson #7: View communications as a holistic effort.

As Mary Miller puts it: “Every business problem in existence can be traced to a communication breakdown.” In order to avoid a crisis, you need an integrated, holistic, and consistent set of messages and values that you communicate consistently to all your various audiences.

In 2022, traditional silos are crumbling from the outside in. Traditional “buckets” of communications are now one big leaky barrel of messages that will get either intentionally or accidentally disseminated to all your audiences, whether you like it or not. That poorly thought out email to “all staff” will always end up in The Wall Street Journal

Talent acquisition and retention is at the top of many organizations’ 2022 goals. This will require good internal communications. But the answer isn’t to talk more, it’s to listen better. To be human means needing people to listen to you. And the single most important goal for internal communications these days is for your employees to feel like you are listening and addressing their issues.

What to learn from it: First, develop feedback loops from employees, customers, prospects, opinion leaders, and potential employees—in fact, any audience that matters. In all communications, be as transparent, honest, and open as possible. Don’t assume you can keep bad news hidden for very long. More importantly, avoid communication breakdowns: make sure that your messages are consistent no matter the audience. Conduct frequent pulse-check surveys to find out what is on their minds.

Lesson #8: ESG issues are top of mind for investors.

ESG (environmental, social and governance) scores are a metric that CEOs and boards are paying more and more attention to. Investors use it to determine the level of risk that your organization faces. Even if your stock isn’t listed yet, keep those ESG ratings top of mind. No one wants to take a flyer on a company they’ve never heard of or one with a less-than-stellar record on climate, social justice, and good governance. Non-profits need to think along the same lines; no one gives anyone money these days if they don’t trust the organization to use it in a way that is sustainable, just, and legal. People today want to work for companies that won’t wreck the planet, have good moral standards, and earn them bragging rights from friends and family. 

What to learn from it: Think holistically (see Lesson #7, above). ESG scores go up and down based on the performance of the whole enterprise. So put someone in charge of ESG communications that has deep knowledge of the organization and has a good handle on institutional knowledge. Give that person the resources and support to ensure that they can actually have an impact, whether with better policies or better communications. The upside is that if you manage to increase your score, you have the perfect opportunity to show your value to leadership. ∞

Thanks for the photo up top to Luis Villasmil on Unsplash.

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.