What is Success? How To Define Key Performance Indicators

Paul Boag

How do you know your site is succeeding? How do you know if that redesign was worth it? How can you justify your work to clients or management? You need a way of measuring success.

Having a way to measure the performance of your website (often known as key performance indicators) is fundamental to its success. For a start, it focuses on the work you are doing on projects that create a tangible return on investment. Too often site improvements are vanity projects, rather than alterations aimed at enhancing site effectiveness.

The focus that comes from having measurable success criteria has another benefit too. It helps to resolve disagreements between stakeholders over the best direction to pursue. When everybody has a clear goal, working towards it helps to ensure everybody is pulling in a consistent direction.

But a way of measuring success provides benefits to us as digital professionals too. It helps us to demonstrate the value of the work we do by enabling us to show how it benefits the business as a whole. That in turn also encourages further investment in digital allowing us to be more ambitious in the work we undertake.

The question then becomes; how do we go about defining success?

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It is worth saying at this point that being able to measure success is only half the battle. The other half is our ability to exceed our targets.

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Defining Success Through Key Performance Indicators

Organizations typically measure success by defining a set of key performance indicators. These are quantifiable measures used to evaluate the progress of your site over time.

However, deciding what these metrics should be is not always easy. A good starting point is the overall company strategy. Most organizations have a plan that outlines broad goals they are looking to achieve. That might be increasing revenue, decreasing costs or extending market share.

Once you have these broad organization goals, seek to identify ways that a high performing website could help to achieve them. That might be generating more leads, reducing support queries or increasing the number of shares on social media.

Finally, turn these criteria into something that is measurable. For example, generating more leads might be measured by the number of contact forms submitted, while reducing support queries might be a drop in the number of people phoning the company.

Image showing the process of turning a company goal into a key performance indicators for the site.
Key performance indicators should represent how the website can fulfil broader organizational objectives.

Of course, no metric is going to be perfect. Some people will email instead of completing a contact form, and there is no guarantee that the drop in calls is exclusively due to the website. That is okay. Make your metrics as good as possible, but accept they will never be perfect. It is better to measure something than nothing.

However, a word of warning. Don’t become too obsessed with your metrics as they are often less than perfect. They can only ever be an indicator of success.

Also, if you settle on the wrong metrics, it can damage the sites overall performance. For example, focusing purely on lead generation results in annoying popup overlays that will hurt long-term customer satisfaction and sales.

To avoid these problems seek to have a mix of metrics that balance one another.

Striking a Balance in Your Key Performance Indicators

Typically I attempt to have a mix of three areas to ensure a balance. These are:

  • Usability,
  • Engagement,
  • Conversion.

Let’s explore these in more depth.

Tracking Usability

Tracking usability is important because it will tie to a considerable range of company goals, from customer satisfaction to customer lifetime value. But how can you track usability? Fortunately, there are some metrics you can look at measuring. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Task success rate. What percentage of users are capable of completing critical tasks on your site.
  • Time to complete task. On average how long does it take a user to complete essential activities on your site?
  • Error rate. How often do users make a mistake when trying to complete a task.
  • The System Usability Scale. A long established survey for measuring users perceptions of usability.
  • Task Performance Indicator. A metric that combines multiple criteria to judge the site’s overall ease of use.

By tracking, over time, one or more of these metrics, you can start to judge whether improvements to the site are helping its overall usability.

Tracking Engagement

Ensuring a site is usable should be a minimum expectation. In truth, our sites should be doing so much more. They should also be delighting and engaging users. We can measure engagement by tracking metrics such as:

  • Attention minutes. How long a user is paying attention to content such as videos.
  • First Impressions. How users initially react upon seeing the site for the first time.
  • Interactions. How often does the user like, comment on or share content?
  • The Net Promoter Score. A metric for measuring how likely a user would be to recommend the site to others.
  • Interaction depth. How many times does the user click when navigating through the site.

Tracking engagement often aligns with organizational goals around increasing brand awareness, expanding market share or other marketing orientated metrics. However, be careful not to focus on elements such as visits because factors beyond the website can significantly influence these figures.

Tracking Conversion

Finally, the most obvious metric to track is conversion rates. Ultimately, the majority of websites exist to persuade users to take some form of action. These actions often create a tangible financial benefit for the company.

If the website belongs to a retailer or service provider, it is typically relatively easy to track conversion. E-commerce sites can track sales, while service companies track leads generated.

However, things are not always straightforward. For example, tracking the number of leads generated is not necessarily the best metric if those are not qualified leads. Also, it can sometimes be hard to identify whether they have come from the website, rather than through other means.

It is in these kinds of situations it is easy to give up on the idea of tracking metrics. However, as I said earlier, it is better to monitor something even if it is not 100% accurate. Also, with a little imagination, it is often possible to track more than you think.

Finally, where possible, it is also good to associate financial value with these conversions. For example, if the business knows that approximately one in 10 of the leads generated on the website turns into a paid project and that the average project is worth a particular figure, then it is possible to work out how much each lead is worth to the business. This kind of calculation is worth doing as it helps justify further investment in the site.

As you can see, key performance indicators are an essential factor for measuring whether investment in the website is generating returns for the business. However, although you should always be seeking to improve these metrics, avoid setting targets for how much they should increase within a specific timeframe.

Beware Setting Targets for Your Key Performance Indicators

Although beneficial, key performance indicators can also be dangerous. That is especially true when the management team starts setting targets relating to those metrics.

For example, it is not uncommon for a management team to look at performance from the previous year and expect continued or even greater growth going forward. At face value, this seems reasonable, but in reality, it is often unrealistic.

Typically when you first start tracking key performance indicators, there will be some obvious and easy fixes that will improve the metrics. However, over time, as the web team fixes more and more things, it will become harder to move the needle. That will make it unrealistic to see the same, or higher, year-on-year improvements.

It is sometimes possible to maintain the level of growth, but only if management matches it with increased investment, allowing the creation of new functionality or carrying out more in-depth analysis. That means the level of return for improvements in the metrics decreases and can lead to a negative net benefit to the business.

As increases in returns fall it often leads to a blame game where different groups within the business pass responsibility for the failings around. For example, the web team blames marketing for not driving quality traffic, while marketing blames the web team for poor conversion.

Instead, we should view key performance indicators as a guide. A guide to where we should be investing in our sites and to whether our efforts are succeeding. They should be an indicator of success, not an unrealistic target to aspire to.