a man sitting at a table with a laptop

Years ago, I worked at a real estate firm. The owner was an old school salesman, and he was fond of saying, “Show me an agent who always makes at least 10 cold calls a day, and I’ll show you someone doing better than everyone else.” 

He would keep tick marks on a piece of paper next to his phone. He made at least 10 cold calls every day. 

To him, cold call volume was a key analytic – they were a thing that an agent had complete control over, and there was a clear correlation with the achievement of that analytic and the sale of more real estate. 

Sure, the actual sales volume of an agent is the most accurate metric of effectiveness, but by the time you look at that metric, there’s not a lot you can do about it. It’s history by then.

The simple truth is that analytics are biased towards the past. We look at numbers to tell us how close we came to achieving something. They’re backwards looking. 

Can we instead use them to look forward? 

I read a great book a few years ago called, “The Four Disciplines of Execution.” The book differentiated two concepts: 

  1. Lagging measures look backwards, asking “Did we succeed at Goal X?”
  2. Leading measures look forward, asking “What did we succeed at that might predict success at Goal X?”

Leading measures predict lagging measures. If you achieve leading measures, you’re more likely to achieve lagging measures. If you neglect leading measures, not surprisingly, your lagging measures falter. 

It’s like standing around in a group and complaining that something didn’t get done. Then someone asked, “Well, who was supposed to do something, and what did they do?” 

…awkward silence. And now it’s too late to do anything about it. 

4DX made another point: you can’t do a goal. 

If you could just “do a goal,” you…just would.  But you can only do activities that move you towards a goal. Having goals is pretty useless without a trackable plan for achieving them. 

Say you want to get an A in your chemistry class. What’s the measure for that? The grade you actually receive? Well, sure, but that’s a lagging measure. By the time you get that, there’s nothing for can do about it – your chance to affect it has passed. 

You need to change your perspective: what’s the leading measure? Instead of waiting to measure a past outcome, what activities can you measure that might predict that outcome?  

  • Study for one hour, four times a week
  • Work through your entire deck of flash cards once per day
  • Attend your group study session twice per week
  • Predict and write out one question likely to be on the final exam every day

Those are leading measures. They’re things you do with the reasonable expectation that hitting those numbers will help you achieve the goal.

What if you achieved those goals – nailed your leading measure – every week for two months? Any reasonable person would agree that your lagging measure – the grade you receive – will go up. 

In content operations, there’s a destructive tendency in the content business to assume that content “just happens.” Too many organizations put little thought into process, and even less into measuring it.  

But if you’re a content driven organization, content production might be your key metric.  

I know, I know, you’re tempted to just measure eyeballs coming to your website. But that’s a lagging measure. It’s backward looking. 

If we’re considering page views specifically, what will move that number?  

Content and campaigns.  

And what’s the leading measure for content and campaigns? 

Content ideation, collaboration and production. 

So, do you have any goals around those? 

What about a process at all? Can you measure and repeat your content production? Do you have a platform that helps you do this? 

Ask yourself – how does knowing last week’s page view numbers help you win next week? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to know that your content team achieved its production goal of one case study, three thought leadership pieces, seven social media posts, and a dozen LinkedIn promotional placements? If you achieved those goals every week for a year, what impact would that have on your lagging measures?  

Now, I’m not saying to stop with your traditional analytics. Knowing how things performed is helpful for strategy and planning. 

But start moving your eyes toward the entire process of content marketing. Just as important as optimization, experimentation and traditional analytics are the processes and technologies that move content through the pipeline and get it out in the world where it can start providing some value to your organization. 

Good news: there is software for this. There's a genre called the "Content Marketing Platform," which is designed to help you get your team working together, concentrate your efforts, and help you hit your leading measures.

In January 2002, Optimizely acquired Welcome Software, which is just such a tool. With this, we've integrated a world-class tool to streamline content production (your leading measure) and get more content in front of your audiences to move the needle on your conversion rates (your lagging measure).

Let's go back to the owner of the real estate firm, I’ll say this: show me a content team that can ensure they’re planning and producing a set volume of content and campaigns every week, and I’ll show you a team doing better than anyone else.