The Myths of Marketing Analytics KPIs

Digital Marketing Analytics KPIs: as insightful as they can be frustrating. In spite of the overwhelming amounts of data ostensibly available to us, in many ways our job as analysts has only gotten harder. Things like “Data-driven marketing” and KPIs like “conversions” have changed and been redefined so many times the words can start to lose their meaning. But where there are challenges, we step up with creative solutions, and always strive to work back to the basics of quality marketing, and reliable information. In spite of the changing landscape and new complexities, we can know a ton about our web users and customers, it just may not be exactly what we have been led to expect.

Let’s start by exploring why things have gotten more complicated in marketing data analytics, then work our way back to the basics and find some creative solutions.

The Challenges:

A Privacy Revolution

Privacy laws and tracking regulations are changing. In compliance with the European Union’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), Google Analytics has changed the entire way in which they track website usage. Where they used to focus their metrics on individual sessions, the notion of “the session” is now obscured in the aggregate and logged as “events”. If sample sizes get too small, they threshold the data altogether, in case information from such a small sample size may identify individual behavior.

This is a good thing. As marketers who are also consumers, we understand firsthand how our data is utilized by others in the industry. While this doesn’t bother everyone, there is a general consensus that major data collectors, like Google, should obtain explicit consent and adhere to certain restrictions when profiting from our personal information. But this means that for the first time since the explosion of abundantly accessible data to marketers and the near-ubiquity of “data-driven” solutions, the exponential growth has crested and we get to learn what it means to rely less on hand-fed data, and more first-party data than we did in previous years. Again, a good thing.

Walled Data Gardens

Platforms would rather host your data than share your data. Linkedin will accept your CMS data, but does not offer an integration out to GA4. Salesforce will import your Analytics Data to their massive Marketing Cloud Service, but good luck getting salesforce data into GA4 or Looker Studio without third-party connection services. Take this reply from Constant Contact to a customer trying to track sign ups via the Constant Contact form plugin installed on their ecommerce page as an event in GA4: “The apps are built to provide analytics to us so we can present them to you, but after speaking with our higher level technical team it isn’t possible to link Google Analytics.” Your customers’ data, as well as your business data is their data.

Larger businesses with dedicated analytics departments universally run their own data warehouses on expensive cloud-services platforms. For smaller or individual businesses, aforementioned third-party connection services offer linkages for a fee, but consider this scenario: you want to track successful completions of a simple mailing-list sign-up form on a WordPress business site. Even if set-up is possible this can now require configuring the plugin via the backend, perhaps having to buy the plugin’s pro-tier for the privilege, setting up custom tags and triggers in Google Tag manager to track a custom event, ensuring your GA4 property is installed via Tag Manager, sending the event to GA4, and importing signup data from your email management platform if they allow it (sorry Constant Contact, I don’t mean to pick on just you). This can be unsustainably resource-intensive even for skilled marketing analysts.

Marketing Revenue Expectations

Marketing has taken on a greater and greater share of expectation and responsibility for direct revenue and sales in recent years. With the rise in B2C ecommerce, the SAAS boom, and the explosion of content-driven ad revenue for niche sites, it is understandable why. These booming subsets of online business happen to be the industries where the marketing-to-sale lifecycle is the most compressed. A B2C’s sales are much more directly attributable to marketing efforts than a B2B site or a local brick-and-mortar trying to grow their web presence. No wonder we hear so much more about detailed marketing ROI tracking and no wonder we expect so much return from our marketing efforts. The expectation of what online marketing efforts can or should deliver when you aren’t in one of these short-lifecycle businesses isn’t really a selling point for all these marketing tools.

So now, in a time of waning access to individual data, a walling-up of end-to-end data sharing across platforms, sales and revenue data are harder than ever to come by, especially for businesses that don’t do online transactions. And owing to the growth of businesses in B2C, SAAS, and ad-revenue, whose revenue is more closely tied to marketing than other online businesses, something has to give.

Conversions are a Flawed Metric

What Can We Know as Marketing Analysts:

Let’s start by throwing out conversions. I know, blasphemy. But let’s live in a world for a moment where conversion is just shorthand for “arbitrary action we want someone to take”, and try to be more specific. Let’s leave individual “sales” out too, hand that over to, well… to sales, while we focus on more reliable and as mentioned, more specific metrics first.

Let’s take stock of what we have, the simpler the better. (For more on building a professional-grade marketing analytics stack with free or inexpensive tools, stay tuned for an upcoming piece). With basic tools like vanilla GA4 we can learn how users interact with our webpage on a basic level simply by the smart use of filters and a little math. We can know revenue and total accounts or purchases from our account statements or downloading financial csv files. We can track marketing, promotional, and campaign expenses in similar fashion. We have Search Console for organic searches and Looker Studio or Google Sheets for integrations, visualizations, and function-building. This can get us top-tier KPIs like monthly ROI on traffic from social media or percent increase in CTR from paid search, and many more. User acquisition channels, user engagement, time-on-page, return visits, these are the metrics that will drive your marketing decisions. We have so much to work with even without tracking individual online transactions.

I’ll walk you through a couple of short examples.

Creative Marketing KPI Examples:

Say you want to know who came to your site through a specific Facebook post, what they did on your site, and how that compares to the same post on LinkedIn, and what your ROI is for traffic from social media.

Start with a UTM code for your posts. These are easy to implement yet sometimes tedious to keep organized, so a spreadsheet and some restraint in usage go a long way. Make sure the only parameter that differs for any given campaign is the source. These allow you to set a filter in GA4 to show only traffic from each post.

As with any marketing data analysis, be hyper-specific on your date range. Set a date filter, let’s call it the month of January 2024.

We now see everyone who came from links in these two posts. We can compare their average time on-site, site-depth, pages visited, and other activity indicators. This is valuable for measuring engagement once they reach your site. If we promoted those posts we could calculate an ROI on engaged leads per post. If we were doing monthly posts we could plot a trendline of new-users from each platform and track growth. Honestly this can be enough data for a marketing analyst to be successful in allocating resources for next-month’s socials.

Alternatively, in SEO we run into end-to-end problems on the front end. In Search Console we can see how much traffic a particular search query drives to a particular landing page on our site. In GA4 we can see what traffic from that landing page on our site did once there. But “landing page” is the only linking key between these datasets so the query-event-conversion chain is broken. But we can calculate a lot from what we do know. In GA4 we can see how much traffic to a landing page came from organic traffic. Filter for that and for any subsequent on-site events and we know one end. In Search Console we can see how much Organic Traffic a given page received from a particular keyword. These percentages can be used to determine the relative weight of a particular keyword on the overall events we care about.

These can be incredibly valued marketing analytics KPIs and never once did we worry about tracking conversions. But say we want more. We’ve returned to the reality of the “sale” and are unsatisfied with the idea that conversions are worthwhile and revenue is again the responsibility of our marketing efforts.

Let’s start with the most clear conversion metric, individual sales. I am going to assume our sales platform does not allow integration into our GA4 and that we do not run our own end-to-end data collection for an online store.

Let’s get creative. If we do take online transactions, let’s see if our sales platform uses an iframe for checkout. If so GA4 might be able to measure clicks within the iframe as following external links. These can be filtered by page and by link. We can apply our date and UTM filters and see who from Facebook clicked within the sales iframe in the month of January. Now we have an estimate for individual purchases from our post. Slap a “unique-user” filter on and now we’ve got an estimate for unique purchasers. A similar work-around can be used if the sales platform uses a ‘thank-you’ page.

Tracking online sales when transactions are not made online or cannot be measured online is all about creating proxy metrics. Things like email signups, clicks on contact forms, scrolls to the contact footer, etc. But what should we call these collected “proxy metrics”?

The Return of Conversions

Here is where conversions finally come back into the picture. These proxy metrics are your “conversions”. We can decide that someone who reads through to the bottom of our blog post has “converted”. Sometimes you can assign these a dollar value, but that can be misinterpreted if the data is going downstream without a complete understanding of the assumptions made.

It is here where I begin to give conversions weight again. As they do have great value when tracking specific, individual sales proves difficult and all else proves unsatisfactory. But pause and take note just how many marketing analytics KPIs and measurements we were able to wring out of generally available data, with incomplete tracking, before we found ourselves face to face once again with the conversion.

Then again you can always just ask your customers when they convert “how did you hear about us?”. Sometimes simple, first-party data really is hard to beat.

Trevor Pendras
Marketing Data Analyst and SEO Specialist
Make Your Mark Digital

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