Are benchmarks for losers?

In baseball, there is an old adage that “stats are for losers”. This refers to the fact that fans often resort to talking about the stats of their favorite team or players when they are losing. In pro sports, winning is what matters – all else is background noise.

Most recently I was discussing effective metrics and the role of benchmarks with a friend when it was then it dawned on me that one could reasonably argue that, like in baseball, “benchmarks are for losers”.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a numbers geek and love meticulously calculated points of reference. They are very useful as a sanity check to make sure you are in the right zip code when launching a new marketing program or trying something completely different.

My main complaints with benchmarks are as follows:

  1. Specificity – In the B2B technology marketing, many benchmarks are aggregated across wide range of categories and in the end I can never seem to get that elusive number for my specific market segment or market leading competitor.
  2. Mediocrity – Benchmarks are often stated as industry averages. Sorry, but I am not interested in being average.
  3. Local optimization – Great, your PPC clickthrough rate is between your industry benchmark of 1-2%. Your part of the world is “meeting expectations”. So what. That number is directionally interesting but your CEO wants to know what revenue and pipeline you are driving. How are you contributing to the overall results of the business?
  4. Laziness – Calculating marketing influenced revenue and pipeline is a hassle. It often requires some CRM alchemy and (gasp) assumptions about attribution. Worse yet, enterprise CRM systems make it virtually impossible for the average marketer to scrape, match and join the tables to connect leads to revenue. Those who can make this work have a huge advantage and can avoid the benchmark-based metrics trap.
  5. Expectations – Winners look to set the standard of performance rather than measure themselves against the average. The choice is yours – you can use benchmarks to measure yourself against average performers or you can strive to set the standard. In my opinion, comparing yourself to benchmarks will never make you a winner. Only continuous improvement and pushing programs beyond worn performance assumptions will.

Winners disregard old assumptions about the way things are done and try new things to reach new performance levels. Unless you have firm comparables from industry leaders then you are likely comparing yourself to the middling your market and are destined to be average at best. I’ve ranted about ruthlessness before and without true results-driven metrics and benchmarks how can we truly hold people accountable and make the hard decisions about where to spend our increasingly scarce marketing dollars?

How are you avoiding the benchmarking trap?

Author: Frank Days

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  1. A lot to agree and disagree with in this post!

    Agree: Benchmarks tend to result in a regression to the mean. They tend to be distortions of reality, and they often encourage holding to a metric just because it exists and can be measured, rather than because its the meaningful outcome you desire.

    Disagree: When you don’t know what is expected, or what is realistic, benchmarks are great guideposts. And working to a benchmark doesn’t mean you’re not a winner, but it does mean you may not be innovating.

    Great post!

  2. Ian,

    You have found the fundamental flaw in my post. There are some things in marketing that we would completely stop doing if we stuck to an “ROI only” approach. Many of these things, however, we learn from experience have macro level impact that is real (but difficult to quantity.

    Thanks for the feedback,

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