KPI overboard: why measuring your failures will foster success

What do Jay Z, Oprah Winfrey and Thomas Edison have in common? Not a lot at a first glance – but they’ve all failed. Jay Z couldn’t get signed, persevered and is now worth in excess of $800m – plus he’s married to Beyoncé. Oprah was famously fired from one of her first news anchor gigs, before founding her own multimedia empire.

And Thomas Edison? Well, he is a particularly illuminating example of someone who’s dealt with downfall. When Edison invented the lightbulb in 1879, it took him 1,000 tries before he got it right. “How did it feel to fail 1,000 times?” a reporter asked.

“I didn’t fail 1,000 times,” Edison responded. “The lightbulb was an invention with 1,000 steps.

Edison, Oprah and Jay Z are shining examples of success mined from the dark pit of failure. The list goes on: Steven Spielberg failed to get into film school on three separate occasions and former Manchester United captain Roy Keane was supposedly too small to play football when he was 14.

These failures spurred on professional success later in life – because failure can be a catalyst for change. The same rule applies when it comes to business, as failure often presents a learning opportunity.

While every marketer and businessperson wants their campaign to be a huge success, that’s not often the case. Campaigns fail. KPIs aren’t met. Revenue is lost. But with grit and the right data, you can learn from your failures. Compile and examine your data, study your campaigns, and learn from why they failed.

Examine the figures, not your feelings

How many times have you tried a campaign, or even an element of a campaign only to move on from it entirely when it doesn’t work? The failure is left to history; the data goes unexamined and the idea is written off.

Someone might have a hunch about why it failed but there is nothing empirical. Campaigns fail for multiple reasons: poor targeting, a lack of market research – sometimes the basic concept is bad or the product isn’t compelling enough. It’s particularly difficult when launching a new product to market.

Research carried out by University College Dublin recently found that customers are reluctant to change from a product they are already used to. That causes failures too.

Businesses always assume that a new product has a relative advantage over others in the market,” said Dr Marius Claudy, who carried out the research. “But consumers value what they have more than what they could potentially have. They favour the status quo and ask why they should change if what they have already works.”

There’s a commonality between examining data and disrupting consumer perception. In both cases, the data is essential. You need to interrogate your data. Market research is often a good idea too: your brand, after all, isn’t what you say it is – it’s what the consumer thinks it is.

To properly interrogate your data, you’ll need to gather multiple sources into one place so you can analyse and understand it. A marketing dashboard is particularly useful in this regard as it shows you how the campaign has performed – or if you can salvage it with a creative refresh or a new targeting strategy.

This gives you the potential to react in real-time and to amend the campaign before it fails. Likewise, you shouldn’t abandon a campaign once it’s failed as the data offers the opportunity to unlock insights into your product and target market. Did they react well to one facet of the campaign but not another? Did your creative register any ad or brand recall? Did one segment of your audience perform differently than anticipated?

Your data allows you to re-tool, refocus, and regroup such that your next campaign performs much better.

Follow what’s important, not the flashy vanity metrics

Gavin Zuchlinski of Acuity Scheduling, an agenda app, explains how examining a marketing failure helped him and his team to achieve better results. Acuity was measuring engagement and signups for its email newsletter and the results, according to Zuchlinski, looked “absolutely phenomenal” but they were having little impact on the company’s bottom line.

Zuchlinski and his team considered the numbers and realised that they weren’t paying any attention to the lifecycle of a customer once they had signed up. “The lifecycle [was] horrendous. Once [we] realised we were misreading the metrics behind AdWords then we had to change. The number of signups can be a terribly misleading metric without the context of other data.”

The metrics that should be examined in cases of failure differ depending on the sector, but the following is a list of some of the key areas you should concentrate on when trying to ascertain the root cause of failure.


Of course, marketing isn’t (and shouldn’t) be entirely about metrics. Sure, they are important but the best campaigns showcase creativity and humour too.


Ben & Jerry’s is particularly efficient at utilising its sense of humour: its business model is to constantly release new flavours (the latest release is a Pumpkin Cheesecake… just in time for Hallowe'en).

Some flavours work, some don’t. If a flavour doesn’t work after six months, the company culls it. However, instead of never acknowledging these flavours, Ben & Jerry’s cheekily launched a ‘flavour graveyard’ to celebrate the demise of all 34 flavours that didn’t work (from the Dublin mudslide – Irish cream liqueur with chocolate chip cookies and a coffee fudge swirl – to Schweddy Balls – a mix of rum-soaked chocolate balls and cream, which is based on an Alec Baldwin sketch on Saturday Night Live).

Ben & Jerry’s celebrates its failures and, with the ‘resurrect this flavour’ button, it gains hugely valuable information about which flavours its customers want to see again in the future. It’s a win-win.

And that’s what we are all looking for.

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