P051: Imperfect Measures

Nineteenth-century department store magnate John Wanamaker created the concept of the money-back guarantee, but he is most vividly remembered for coining what is now one of the great clichés of the advertising business:

“Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Ev Williams has done more to drive personal publishing and communication via the web than probably anyone, having founded Blogger, Twitter and Medium. Yesterday, he wrote about measuring success in a way that was both resonant and familiar:

“If what you care about — or are trying to report on — is impact on the world, it all gets very slippery… You have to accept that things are very imperfectly measured and just try to learn as much as you can from multiple metrics and anecdotes.”

Think about that. Ev Williams has shown us that there are a billion reasons to try and create something new and meaningful in the world, but when it comes to knowing if your new thing is meaningful, the best we can do is admit that these things are hard to measure? Mr. Wanamaker would not be pleased.

It is true that widespread internet usage has given advertisers and publishers access to huge amounts of potentially valuable data about customer behavior and brand preference. But every new avenue of expression brings with it a unique set of metrics and new methods of assessment. The web has matured to the point where we understand that there is more to the story than the hit, the pageview, the Monthly Active User, but we haven’t been able to move beyond these basic measurement tools. To be honest, I’m not sure that we can, or if we even know where we want to go, or even if there is one particular destination.

Medium’s primary metric is Total Time Reading, which is interesting primarily because it’s impossible to measure Minds Changed, Tears Shed, Lives Affected. A cynic might say “That’s fine for Medium,” but a realist would start this year off looking for ways to add depth and meaning to their analytics and assessment functions.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron