I was part of a peer learning group Beth Kanter convened when she was writing Measuring the Networked Nonprofit. I was excited and terrified, and, ultimately, didn’t even complete my pilot project. Work intervened. Flash forward 18 months, and I’ve become a measurement evangelist. It’s still scary to set quantifiable goals for a project and report on whether we reached them. And it’s still hard to carve out time for tracking. But we can’t afford to operate on hunches when there is real data available to inform outreach efforts. Because what gets measured gets better.
There are lots of reasons I struggled to find the right measurement groove. As communications consultants, we often fight the thud factor. A pile of news clips makes a gratifying sound when dropped on a conference table, but did those stories reach the right people, did they say the right thing? The social media revolution has made it possible to count dozens of new indictors that don’t necessarily demonstrate impact. But we’re in the business of creating change, not tallying likes.
Turns out, change happens when you’re paying close attention to results. We have always done this by tracking policy outcomes and media coverage. But now we have a wealth of interim measures that enable us to fine tune tactics along the way.
Start measuring now, wherever you are
When I first met Beth and was struggling to come up with the right pilot project, I kept worrying the timing was off. Few nonprofits are just building a Facebook page or website. We’re all midstream with our communications. We don’t have good baseline data, and didn’t necessarily start with the clearest of goals. So how do you retrofit SMART objectives and a measurement protocol on projects already up and running?
Start where you are. Maybe you don’t have enough information to set numeric goals grounded in past performance. Maybe you haven’t quite narrowed down which metrics will be most important in the long run. That’s okay—it’s a practice that can evolve over time. But you have to start somewhere.
I started with this basic tracking worksheet. I captured baseline data for all my projects, and asked partners to commit to quarterly measurement throughout their campaigns. For in-house communications channels, like @RMedia, @climatechangeUS and Can’t Spill Clean Energy, we track monthly.
Zen and the art of routine measurement
While there are lots of slick tools out there that automate measurement (Sparkwise and SumAll capture much of the same data as my spreadsheet), part of the magic of measurement is in the practice itself. The numbers of followers, shares or referrals need to be paired with observations about what is driving engagement. Does my community love political cartoons? Kitten photos? Stories from their peers?
This feedback loop about what’s working is the path to steady improvement. For Resource Media’s blog and e-newsletter, I pay close attention to the posts that perform, try to isolate the secret sauce, and replicate those successes. I report to colleagues monthly about what our audience responds to, and encourage my clients to do the same.
You might think routine measurement would lead to a slow decline in creativity, but instead, I’ve found the opposite to be true. It gives us license to experiment, knowing we will have hard facts to evaluate the results.
And while measurement does indeed take time, it also liberates us from ongoing communications tasks that aren’t producing the desired result. A small investment in planning and tracking adds up to a major increase in impact. But it only works if you do it; so don’t bite off more than you can regularly chew.
Right-sizing your measurement approach
A person could get lost in Google Analytics, or spend days tracking the trajectory of every link and tweet. But a measurement dashboard the size of Texas is about as useful as an encyclopedia-length communications plan. You want to take a snapshot of outreach results with just enough detail to be able to attribute spikes in activity to external events, great content, or the unpredictable internets. Start with a simple spreadsheet like this one, and then add or subtract fields once you hit your stride.