Success! (How to get it.)

In baseball, it’s clear who won: the team with the most runs.

In Monopoly, it’s the last player standing, after everyone else has been bankrupted.

But sometimes the rules of winning don’t involve beating other people. If you’ve ever run a marathon, you might define success as just having crossed the finish line (especially after 26.2 miles) and leave the “winning” to the pro. My family and I play a cooperative card game called “Ravine,” where the goal is for all of the players to survive the plane crash. In those examples, there are no “losers.”

What this reveals to us, then, is that it’s important to dictate the terms of winning. In baseball, it’s finishing with the highest score, in Monopoly it’s bankrupting the other players, in a marathon it’s finishing the run, and in “Ravine” it’s working together to ensure that every player survives.

So: The first step to achieving success is to define it.

The second step is to set a baseline.

What’s a baseline? It’s where you’re starting from. In baseball, each team starts with zero. In Monopoly? Every player starts with $1500 in game money. Before I started training for the marathon I ran in 2008, my baseline was zero — that’s how much I was running per day before that. Three months later, I was running 26.2 miles (some of them more slowly than others…).

We set a baseline so that we can keep score not just on the win — but also on the improvement. Because sometimes (frequently, in marketing!) the improvement is the win. That’s because life and most other things go on, with ups and downs, wins and losses, and with changing terms and evolving goals. The end point is not always as clear as it is in a game.

What is a baseline in marketing? It’s the current numeric score you’re achieving in an area you want to improve.

Let’s say that your greatest goal is spreading awareness. You want more people to know about what you do. But how could you prove that you’ve succeeded in spreading awareness?

The answer is to establish a numeric baseline associated with parameters you can track. Here are just some such numeric parameters:

  • Donations
  • Donors
  • Unique visitors to your website
  • Page views of your website
  • Followers on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc.
  • Engagement on each social platform
    • Shares and retweets, clicks, likes, shares, and video views
  • Signups to your email newsletter
  • Open rate of your email newsletter
  • Click throughs from your email newsletter
  • Inbound links
  • Inbound emails
  • And on and on

Several years ago, the City of Santa Monica wanted a campaign that achieved multiple objectives. In the hope that more people would make use of important services being offered, they wanted to spread the word about nonprofits they were funding in the city. They also hoped the project would somehow help youth in the city, especially those who would benefit from additional opportunities.

What we came up with was a program called “Santa Monica Connect,” which paired about three dozen nonprofits with ten high-school students we trained to serve as reporters. We taught them how to use social media and a blogging platform, and how to report on a story and write about it, and then we set them off to report on those nonprofits. Their reports were dripped out on social media, and also headquartered on a city blog where all the reports could be read. To spread the word about the campaign, we hung bright yellow door hangers on every residential doorknob in the city. Our thinking: If you come home and see an alarming-looking door hanger from the city on your doorknob, you’re going to read it.

The campaign was a great success, garnering write-ups in all the local newspapers (free publicity!), and providing numeric proof of improvement. We were able to track the number of visitors to the blog, the social engagement on Facebook, the open rate of the campaign emails, and also some reporting from the nonprofits: how many phone calls, how many mentions, increased use of their services, and so forth. But the single best success was one nobody had anticipated: One of the nonprofits was so impressed with the young reporter who came to interview them that they hired her. Yes, the campaign resulted in the first job for this particular high-school student. That one still makes us smile.

We knew all along that the campaign was working, because we had goals in mind (awareness; training) and we attached numerals to those goals, and we were tracking the numerical growth. Kickoff event: 34 nonprofits attended, plus 3 reporters. Ten students trained. Email list: started from zero, and grew. Blog: started from zero, and grew. Residences notified: started from zero, then grew to about 40,000, thanks to those door hangers.The campaign was filled with heart — working with the kids was great, because it felt like an investment in the future, and working with nonprofits is always rewarding because of their commitment to social improvement — but to know that we were succeeding, we needed those numbers.

(You’ll also note that strategy — the conceptualization of the campaign, plus the blocking and tackling right down to the particulars — was essential. This is why we always start with strategy: to help guarantee success.)

Everyone came away happy, because we knew what we were setting out to accomplish, and we would be able to prove whether or not it had succeeded. It was numerically clear at the end of the campaign that more people in Santa Monica now knew about the services that the city made available through the nonprofits it funded. The campaign’s final report proved it, providing statistics that staff could present to city council. The coverage we got in local newspapers and also local television was a bonus (a terrific bonus, to be sure). So was being part of getting that young woman her first job.

The other reason to set key performance indicators, of course, is to inform you if you’re not meeting them. If you’ve established that, say, the open rate to your email is a key metric attached to your success, and you see that only five percent of people are reading it, then you’ve just gotten an alert that you need to swing into action.

Many of the KPIs you’ve set related to your campaign can help determine your actions.

Is your email going unopened?

  • It might be a deliverability issue; are you sure people are actually receiving it? Or is it getting stuck in their spam filter?
  • If it’s getting delivered, it might be a subject line issue. Is it grabby enough to get people to open it? Or are they just fine with deleting it unread?

Not getting enough clicks through to your website from an email?

  • Then maybe you aren’t offering a compelling reason for someone to click through. What is the content you’re providing on the other side of that link, and are you making it sound compelling enough?

Bounce rate too high?

  • Are people clicking through to your site, but then clearly aren’t staying on the page long enough to see what you’ve put there? Then that page isn’t delivering on the promise you made in the email. Put yourself in the shoes of the person clicking: You read the email and you were inspired to click — does what you’re looking at live up to the promise in the email?

Without the number-oriented goal-setting behind each of these things, you wouldn’t be monitoring the results… and you wouldn’t know what corrective action to take.

With your own campaign, have you set a goal?

Have you defined the area you’d like to improve?

And, if you have, have you attached metrics to it?

In addition to the marketing metrics that should always be tracked, here are some metrics nonprofits might track:

  • Number of donors
  • Average donation amount
  • Total donation amount
  • Number of people served (program participation / attendance)
  • Donor retention rate
  • Fundraising ROI

Cities and counties have different goals than nonprofits.

(Although they frequently overlap.) Local government, because it potentially affects every aspect of where and how we live, can track dozens and dozens, even hundreds, of key performance indicators. Just a few include:

  • Attendance at events and festivals
  • Change in property value
  • Number of building permits issued
  • Value of commercial projects under development
  • Poverty rate
  • Voter turnout
  • Tourism income
  • Number of jobs
  • Average household income
  • Per-person greenhouse gas emissions
  • Unemployment rate

And just about everything else you can think of. (In fact, for a list of 143 local government key performance indicators, click here.)

(We can all do better. But in many ways, local government does a good job. After all, how many of your own neighborhood’s KPIs are positive, but you just took them for granted? What government does not always do a great job with is spreading the word about its own goals and its own accomplishments. But that’s a topic for another day.)

I’m not by nature a runner, but I did complete that marathon in 2008. I spent three months training with a nice group of people, all of us raising money to combat AIDS. (Pro tip: You generally meet nice people when you’re raising money for a good cause. Statistically speaking, there are no evildoers raising money to fight illness.) The success of that particular campaign grew from setting small goals (two miles a day) in service to achieving a big goal (running 26.2 miles and, oh yeah, raising at least $3,000 to help the nonprofit). The very first day of training, I was surprised to be asked to run two miles — and even more surprised to find that I could do it. (I thought we’d start slower.) For weeks, I’d come home from training and just collapse on the floor. But one day, I came home from running ten freaking miles and just went about my day; that was the day I knew I was getting somewhere.

That’s because we’d all been tracking the numeric success all along.

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