Goodhart’s Law and Starting with Why

Social media and other digital channels have given analytical marketers exactly what they’ve always wanted: more numbers to drop in a spreadsheet.

I’m not dismissive. Data is very useful and important. It’s how we determine how to invest resources, where to double down, when to cut our losses, switch channels or change messages.

But for a discipline that is relatively new, there already seems to be an established orthodoxy for measuring results. In just a decade, entire industry sectors have sprung up to provide real-time analytics on the number of impressions, shares, comments, reactions, new followers, audience attrition … you name it.

And all of these measurements can be very helpful if, as my colleague Kyle likes to say, you ask the right questions (subtle boss shout-out).

The challenge arises when the metrics themselves become the measure of success. British economist Charles Goodhart described the problem when writing about national economies, but the principal still holds true—whenever one statistical measure becomes a stand-in for evaluating the whole, it will cease to be a useful measure.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that people are gaming the system. It’s simple human nature to repeat actions that are rewarded—and if moving that “Like” number one percent higher than it was last month makes the boss happy, then that’s what we’ll do.

Standby for adorable puppy video in 3 … 2 … 1 …

So, your team pumps out some “fresh content.” Some people like it. Some comment on it. Some share it … and all the numbers look great again.

But why?

And why is that better?

There are situations in which the basic metrics are, indeed, solid measurement tools. If you’re marketing a mass-market product, follower and impression counts certainly factor into your evaluation. Grade-A, certified-genius-level content might make you feel good, but it’s not going to move much product if only 17 people see it. Gaining new followers may be in order.

Conversely, if you’re marketing a highly specialized product or service with only a dozen or so potential users in the known universe, even a few million fanboys cheering you on in a social space won’t help if you can’t reach those key decision makers.

But unless you’re a big-time professional online influencer, audience growth is likely, in and of itself, not a business objective. Most of us are in the business of marketing products and services. That’s the entire point of your brand’s social presence.

By all means, keep an eye on your social metrics and pay close attention to when and how your online audience is interacting with your brand. But understand those numbers for what they are: leading indicators, not business objectives.

Finding the right audience is more important to your real-world business objectives than reaching the biggest one.

And even then, it really only matters when we succeed in motivating some action based on what we’ve shared.

Y’know, in the real world.

That’s why.