Marketing Resolutions: Moving from Lag to Lead

Posted by Dr-Pete

It’s that time of year – time for all of us to promise to be better people starting January 1st: people who always drink eight 8-oz. glasses of water, floss every night, and never watch 12-hour marathons of Real Housewives when we should be working. Even at work, we’re busily crafting our Q1 and 2015 plans for world domination, or at least for not-getting-fired, and trying to ignore how painfully short we fell in Q4 and 2014. This time, it will be different.

The Problem with “Lag” Goals

This is a post about marketing goals, and the insanity of failing the same way over and over. I think it might help to start with a more personal example, though. Let’s say that you make a typical New Year’s resolution – you resolve to lose 10 lbs. in Q1 of 2015. What will happen when April 1, 2015 arrives? You’ll step on the scale and look back at your progress (or, just as likely, lack thereof):

At this point, you’ve either succeeded or failed, but when you step on the scale, your fate is no longer in your hands. You’re looking back at the past, measuring lag metrics – put simply, the event has already happened, and you’re just waiting for your grade.

There’s nothing wrong with accountability, and some of our lag metrics are necessary. If your company plans to spend M in 2015 and doesn’t want to borrow money, you’d better make more than M – that’s just math.

The problem is simple – when it comes time to step on the scale, our fates are already sealed. We’ve set an objective, but we’ve given ourselves no clear path to influencing that objective. We’re trapped always looking backward.

What if, instead, you resolved to exercise 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week?

Congratulations, you’ve just set a lead goal. While both goals are measurable, only one is really actionable. Resolving to exercise 3 times a week is forward-looking – you can measure as you go and check off the boxes every day (or nearly every day). If you get into trouble, you’ll know early.

The Myth of Marketing Goals

Of course, we set lag goals in business all of the time. We want our content to generate 5M pageviews in Q1, or Post X to deliver 3,000 re-tweets, or our ranking to go from #3 to #2, or conversion to go up to 3.5%.

It’s fine to have objectives, but I’m going to say something controversial – I believe we are suffering from a mass-delusion. We are confusing saying big numbers out loud with actually achieving something, as if simply giving the number a name has conjured a benign spirit of profitability.

Let me pick on myself for a minute. In late 2013, I set a goal of writing three blogs posts that collectively earned 100,000 views (any three, it didn’t matter). I failed to achieve that goal, which like all failure, didn’t feel very good. The truth is, I set myself up to fail – I had no plan of action, no definable progress, just a number painted on a bulls-eye.

It’s worse than that, though. Think about what I implied when I said out loud “I want 100,000 views!” (I beseech thee, oh ancient gods of analytics!). Can you spot the problem? I implied that, prior to making my wish, I
didn’t want 100,000 views. It’s as if I just woke up that morning and realized more was better.

Of course, I
always wanted more traffic – that’s painfully obvious. The problem is that the vast majority of marketing goals boil down to “Give me more!” It’s fine to be ambitious, and it’s necessary to refine your ambitions into achievable numbers. What’s not fine is to confuse that most basic step 1 with actually accomplishing something. We sit in boardrooms, shout big numbers to the wind, and pat each other on the backs, as if shouting was a virtue.

A Story of Lead Metrics

At the end of last year I tried an experiment – at the time, I didn’t know I was replacing lag goals with lead goals, but that ended up being exactly what I did. Long story short, I decided to try something new on Moz’s Google+ account. As part of my research, I have a lot of screenshots of features Google seems to be testing. They often aren’t enough to justify a blog post, but it occurred to me that they might be a good fit for Google+.

So, I set out in typical fashion – setting a lag goal to post these screenshots “regularly” (failing to define what that actually meant) and then achieve 1,000 total +1s and 500 total shares over a 6-month period (each post would only take me about 5 minutes, so it was a minimal investment).

Then I had that sinking feeling – how exactly was I going to achieve this, and how often should I post? I looked at my recent data and decided that 2 posts per week was realistic. So, I changed my goal to posting 2 interesting screenshots per week for 6 months (52 total). My goal had changed from lag to lead.

Ultimately, because my path was clear and I could hold myself accountable every week, I published 59 updates to Google+ based on this project. What’s interesting is what happened when I stepped on the scale:

Those 59 updates ended up getting 1,711 +1s and 799 shares. By creating an actionable lead goal, I actually eclipsed my original lag goals (beating them by +71% and +60%, respectively). Even better, I had a repeatable process that I could continue to use to achieve future success.

The Agony of Success

That last point is important, and I don’t want it to be lost at the end of one sentence you probably skimmed. We’re all aware of the feeling when we step on the metaphorical scale and realize we failed to achieve our goals. I could never describe it to you as vividly as you can probably picture it yourself.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t failure that convinced me of the need for lead goals in my own marketing plans – it was success. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a couple of major content marketing successes. Chief among them is the 
Google Algorithm History, which has topped 1.5M views in its lifetime and is actually getting more traffic as time goes by (it’s already topped 600K views and half a million uniques in 2014).

You’re probably thinking that this is a real tragedy for me. Here’s the problem – when we succeed, it obviously feels good, we celebrate, and we have our moment. When that moment passes, though, we’re left with what can be a terrible, sinking feeling, that I can only summarize as: “Now what?”

Success raises expectations, but so often we don’t understand why we succeeded. Even when we do understand why, the people around us often just think we can “do more of that!”, even if “that” (whatever that is) can’t really be repeated. I can’t just build another Google Algorithm History.

The Content Team at Moz has faced a similar struggle with the 
Beginner’s Guide to SEO. The Beginner’s Guide has topped 2.3M unique visitors in 2014, by far the most successful piece of content we’ve ever created. Naturally, we want to repeat that success, but what does that mean? We can’t just take something completely unique and do it again. Maybe our success wasn’t an accident, but it wasn’t exactly a formula, either, and success can leave us feeling just as helpless as failure.

So, why are lead goals different? They’re different because they outline specific, measurable actions. If those actions succeed, you’ll automatically have a path forward. That’s not to say that every successful action will continue to work forever or that you’ll be exponentially successful, but when the moment comes that you think “Now what?”, you’ll at least have a piece of the answer.

The Evolution of Objectives

I’m not pretending that these ideas are completely original. Over the past few years, we’ve all seen an evolution in goal setting. Here at Moz, like a growing number of companies, we use the OKR process. Even
Google has championed OKRs recently.

If you’re not familiar with it, OKR stands for “Objectives and Key Results”. The idea is fairly simple – instead of just creating a broad, ill-defined goal, you have to break that goal down into specific, measurable results. As this process has evolved, many people have added a critical action layer, breaking down the steps necessary to achieve those key results (which, in turn, will signal that the objective has been achieved).

Sound familiar? Key results are essentially lag goals, and actions are lead goals, working together in what theoretically is perfect harmony. Here’s the problem – most of us continue to carry all of our bad habits into this process. So, ultimately it looks something like this:

We focus a ton of time creating an important-sounding objective, agonize over turning that into a few key results (to make the boss happy), and then slap together a list of actions 5 minutes before our review. Most of our time is spent at the top of the process, which is completely backward. This is what the process should look like.

Yes, well-thought-out objectives are important, but actions don’t just magically trickle down from them. Ultimately, those objectives have to be built on a foundation of concrete actions and well-defined key results. We’re outcome focused, because outcomes sound impressive, but we’re so obsessed with perfecting the outcome statement that we put little or no thought into how to make it happen.

Your Challenge for 2015

I’m not suggesting any of you abandon lag goals and metrics. We have to evaluate outcomes. If nothing else, other people are going to judge us based on traditional outcomes, like traffic and rankings and social mentions. The trick is to take those outcomes and chart a path to them, using goals we can measure along that journey (and not just looking back when it’s over).

If it helps, think of lead goals as hypothesis testing. For example, I’ve been studying Moz content this year and have determined that my engagement on Twitter and Facebook is falling while our engagement on Google+ is increasing. In other words, Google+ success seems more highly correlated to broader success metrics than other social networks. Unfortunately, Google+ is also where I spend the least amount of my time. So, I’ve set myself a challenge in Q1 to spend a specific amount of time each day on Google+ and actively share other people’s content.

I can’t guarantee that will work, no more than I can guarantee Moz will meet its financial goals. However, I can measure my progress along the way, course-correct as needed, and, if that experiment works, I can continue my actions into Q2 to generate more successful outcomes.

So, I’d challenge you to experiment for yourself. You don’t need to sell your entire organization on lead goals. You don’t have to dump your lag goals (in fact, please don’t). Just take 50% of the time you’d normally put into crafting that perfect objective statement and use it to map out a path of specific, measurable actions you can take every day. If they work, keep doing them. By the end of the year, you may be amazed by the results.

Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!


Moz Blog

December 20, 2014  Tags: , , , ,   Posted in: SEO / Traffic / Marketing

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.



TechNetSource on Facebook




TechNetSource » Marketing Resolutions: Moving from Lag to Lead