“Key performance indicator”, KPI sounds like a phrase concocted in a lab or something that a teen came up with trying to add more words to their high school term paper.

But we use “KPI” all the time — myself included — mostly because that’s what we’ve heard other people say.

But I’m calling it. It’s time to retire “KPI” – Even though this article could be a dangerous drinking game if you sipped every time you saw the acronym.

But why?

Let’s start with the fact that thousands of people don’t even know what it stands for. Check out these monthly search volume numbers for KPI-related keywords.

Source: Keyword Surfer

As marketers, we know better than anyone that we need to speak in plain, easy-to-understand terms. And if you’re thinking, “the people searching this aren’t our potential clients”, then here’s a surprising data point.

A survey of 300+ business owners revealed only 40% knew what KPI meant. For context, 70% knew what domain authority was, and 58% knew what a backlink was.

KPI, a widely used business acronym — still isn’t even as clear as digital marketing industry terms. This is a sign, my friends

And if using jargony acronyms is in the same realm as using big words to sound smarter (which doesn’t really work), we’d be better served relying on more layman’s terms.

Practicing what we preach

Going on a rant about an acronym might seem a little dramatic. But it represents something we can all take the time to improve upon, communicating clearly.

Instead of strictly talking KPIs, focus on these two things:

1. Having the right conversations about metrics with clients/stakeholders

In some cases, I’ve seen identifying and focusing solely on KPIs have a blinding effect on the greater context of a situation.

That’s not to say that having KPIs aren’t useful if used correctly. But it can be easy to slip into the practice of only reporting on certain elements to leadership, which can impact the way your work is perceived by stakeholders and influence what actions are taken going forward.

So instead of KPIs? Let’s talk about “metrics”. It’s more general, yes, but it also allows you to tell a more comprehensive, nuanced story. Here are some examples to illustrate this:

Example one – You run your company’s blog

You run your company’s blog, and your KPI has been the number of conversions of people signing up for your email list.

But let’s ask some other questions.

  • How many of those people are opening the emails you send?
  • How many people immediately unsubscribe versus those who’ve stayed on for months?
  • What percentage of people landing on certain blog posts are converting compared to other posts?
  • How many people have gone through the lead funnel, and which posts can be attributed as the start of that? (Perhaps posts have led people to explore more on the site but not sign up for the email list, does that mean they aren’t effective?)

Example two

You run a Twitter contest, and your KPI is a number of Twitter followers added.

Yes, it’s good to have more social followers in order to expand your reach and have an outlet of communication to your audience. But also consider these questions:

  • How many of the people following you are relevant to your brand/industry?
  • How many unfollow the account after the contest is over?
  • How many of those people have engaged with anything you’ve posted after a month?
  • Basically, we’re getting at this question: What value are these new followers adding?

Example three

You’re doing content marketing + digital PR, and your KPI is a number of acquired links.

There’s more to examine than a raw number of links. Most importantly, what is the quality of those links? A link from USA Today is not equal to a link from someone’s Tumblr.

  • How much referral traffic are you receiving from being linked in these news articles?
  • Is any of it converting? Additionally, there are other benefits to this work.
  • How is the brand referenced in the media story? (Is the brand mention above the fold?) Is the brand framed authoritatively?

By broadening things out from simply the “KPI”, we can see the whole journey of how digital marketing works, which helps inform your leadership of how everything works together. It’s up to you to communicate these relationships succinctly, but they’re very valuable to include.

2. Literally communicating more clearly

As marketers, we know better than anyone that we need to speak in plain, easy-to-understand terms so people know exactly what we mean. 

Especially with online content, if we don’t immediately get to the point, we can lose the readers’ attention, and all of the hard work creating our content is useless.

That’s not to say we should cut out all jargon. Some of it exists for a reason — because no other word really defined the concept in the first place.

I consider ROI (return on investment) to fall into this category. Sure, you can say “results”, but that’s very broad and also doesn’t get to the core of what ROI means: Did we make our money back and more?

Next time you’re drafting a status report or email, use the old writing trick of confirming that every word has a necessary meaning.

As the author of The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr, famously said,

“Omit needless words.”

Conclusion

Can you focus on certain metrics more than others? Of course. But changing your approach to creating a “family” of metrics you use and report on can really help change perspectives and see the broader picture of how well things are working.

We’re all busy, and our communication isn’t always measured. But take a moment next time you write up something important and check: Is this really want I want to say and the most efficient, clear way to say it?

Amanda Milligan is the Marketing Director at Fractl, a prominent growth marketing agency that’s worked with Fortune 500 companies and boutique businesses.

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