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Beware Counting That Doesn’t Count

June 11, 2012 | By Ross Graber

One of the most memorable statements at last month’s SiriusDecisions Summit came from Jonathan Becher, CMO of SAP. Mr. Becher said, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." By my unofficial count, his statement was repeated, retweeted and discussed more than any other one-liner from the Summit. So I wanted to dig into why this statement resonates so well with marketing leaders.

One of the most memorable statements at last month’s SiriusDecisions Summit came from Jonathan Becher, CMO of SAP. Mr. Becher said, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." By my unofficial count, his statement was repeated, retweeted and discussed more than any other one-liner from the Summit. So I wanted to dig into why this statement resonates so well with marketing leaders.

Let’s begin with the first part of the statement: "Not everything that can be counted counts." Phrased differently, b-to-b marketers continue to struggle to show the impact that their efforts are having, and they’re investing even more time in showing it. In the process, they’re spending time and effort counting things that aren’t key to an organization’s success and tend not to be actionable.

So, what’s being counted? I’m seeing marketers having a hard time sorting out what’s worth measuring and reporting on. Aided by evolving marketing technologies, more data is available than ever before. Many marketers now focus on counting what they did, rather than measuring the impact of what was done. Counting completed activities may be a great way to show how busy marketing is, but it’s not a substitute for reporting on the impact. It’s the results that matter.

Newly available system-generated data is also contributing to a growing amount of noise in marketing reporting. Instead of making sense of what’s truly important to the success of a business, too many organizations resort to a “drown them with data” approach. Emails sent, Web pages viewed, pieces of content created, Twitter followers, outbound phone calls placed are all counted in enormous summary reporting packages. The basic premise of this approach is that by showing all reporting audiences huge streams of data, the requirement to demonstrate marketing contribution to the business is successfully achieved. It’s as if marketing is saying, “Look at all this activity. Look at all this data. Marketing’s contribution must be in there … somewhere.”

I find this approach especially frustrating because success depends on a wish that recipients will magically understand what they’re seeing and make perfect sense of it. More often, it elicits one of two basic reactions. The first is for recipients to ignore the avalanche of data they're receiving because it creates too much work to make sense of it. Instead, they just go on doing what they’re doing, because they don’t see how the data is really going to help them – thus no action is taken, behavior changed or benefit realized. The second approach is for recipients to invest significant time and energy trying to understand the data. When individuals don’t see marketing’s specific contribution reflected, they ask for even more data because they didn’t get what they needed from the data presented. This results in even more energy being expended in an endless cycle of gathering, reporting and distributing even more data. But this is an approach just as likely to fail.

When I see organizations buried in numbers, the cause usually stems from marketers not being able to align their activities to impacts and organizational goals. Sometimes it’s because organizational goals are loosely defined, or the work of associating those goals with marketing outcomes has not been done. Without this association, the numbers that signify success can’t be identified and isolated. And this means that a whole lot of energy is being invested in counting things (and doing things) that don’t count for anything.

So it’s great if the resonance of Mr. Becher’s statement at the Summit is a signal that marketing leaders have had enough of this type of counting. But the real challenge lies in leading organizations toward better alignment between activities and goals – and translating this alignment into measurements that matter.

As far as not everything that counts being countable, I’ll tackle that topic in my next blog post.

Ross Graber

Ross Graber is a Senior Research Director of Marketing Operations Strategies at SiriusDecisions. He brings over 15 years of b-to-b marketing experience with focus spanning marketing measurement, demonstrating ROI, data management, process development, marketing technology, customer marketing and sales enablement. Follow Ross on Twitter @rossgraber.