Digital Analysts Need More Than Just SMART Goals

One of the keys to your success as a digital analyst or web analytics practitioner is having a clear understanding of the organizational goals or objectives. In my mind, it’s the starting point to everything. If you don’t have a good understanding of your company’s digital strategy, it’s hard to know if you’re measuring, reporting, and analyzing the right data points. If your data and metrics aren’t properly aligned to the business objectives, your digital measurement efforts run the risk of not being relevant or valuable to your company. Many people have advocated analysts to use the SMART criteria to avoid this situation, but I’d like to highlight some problems with the SMART approach and propose a more appropriate method.

Problems with the SMART methodology

Most of us have been encouraged to create SMART goals when setting personal and employee goals. The concept of SMART objectives can be traced back to management publications in the early 1980s, and has been engrained in most HR goal setting initiatives ever since then. Interestingly, over time the actual SMART criteria have been compromised by differing interpretations of which words make up the acronym. The most common version is Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. However, the various terms such as simple, meaningful, appropriate, realistic, tangible, and other words have been swapped in and out, diluting the overall SMART methodology to some degree.

Nevertheless, the one of the main problems I have with the SMART methodology is that it is for goal setting, not goal measurement. It’s the wrong tool for the job at hand. As digital analysts, our role typically isn’t to set the company’s digital goals – it is to define and clarify the objectives so we can effectively measure the company’s performance against achieving those goals. As we learn from Peter Drucker, goal measurement is important because “what gets measured gets managed.” Sometimes it might feel like you’re creating your company’s online goals when they are not clearly articulated, but at the end of the day you’re really just confirming with the management team that you’ve interpreted the key business objectives correctly.

From a measurement perspective, two of the five SMART criteria aren’t necessary and just get in the way because we’re not evaluating our own goals but those created by the executives for the organization. First, as analysts it’s not our concern if a company goal is attainable as long as we can measure the progress towards achieving it. Second, it’s also not our role to question whether a goal is relevant or realistic. Are we going to tell the senior executives that their goals are unattainable, irrelevant, or just plain foolish? Probably not, even if you’re tempted to have a Jerry Maguire moment. However, it is reasonable and understandable for an analyst to push to make sure the objectives are specific, measurable, and time-bound in order to properly measure, report, and analyze them.

Another key issue with the SMART criteria is that it doesn’t account for how we are dealing with more than just a single company goal but a set of goals that are all competing for attention and resources. It is naïve to treat all of the objectives as equally important. In my experience as a consultant, I’ve found that objectives can and should be ranked or prioritized (weighted if necessary). Even with my own personal goals, some of them are essential to what I want to accomplish during the year while other goals are more of the “wouldn’t it be nice if…” variety. For example, one of my main goals last year was to finish my book, and it superseded other goals such as running my first half marathon (I know, I know). The same applies to executives and corporate goals, where achieving certain goals (e.g., decreasing online marketing costs by 20%) may supersede other goals (e.g., increasing net promoter score by 25%). All of the company’s online goals might be important, but they’re probably not equally important. Prioritization is an essential component to defining and clarifying company objectives, but this factor is missing from the SMART methodology.

Introducing PACT objectives

For goal measurement purposes, I’m going to propose a slight modification to using the SMART criteria by removing what’s not relevant, adding what’s missing, and keeping what’s useful. The proposed PACT criteria are simply as follows:

  • Prioritized: In most cases, you’re dealing with a set of business objectives and not a single business goal. You want to establish the priority levels of the different objectives, especially when they’re competing for attention and limited resources. Prioritization also helps digital analysts (as well as the entire business) know where to focus their time and efforts.
  • Assessable: If an objective is difficult to measure, it’s going to be challenging to know what the results should be (and manage to those results). Holding people accountable to an unmeasurable goal is nearly impossible and only increases the likelihood that the goal won’t be achieved. Note: Sometimes you might need to get creative in how you tie data to a particular business objective (especially if it’s a top priority), which is fine as long as everyone buys into what you’ve proposed.  
  • Clear: A goal must be specific and unambiguous so that the required action and desired outcome are clear. Linking the goal to a specific target such as a rate, number, and percentage will enhance its clarity. If various teams can interpret the same objective differently, they may head in different directions and even focus on different KPIs, missing the desired outcome entirely.
  • Time-Bound: A target date for the objective helps an organization to understand its progress toward the desired aim and may generate a sense of urgency if progress isn’t happening as expected.  

Lastly, the PACT acronym represents a final element that’s important to goal measurement. The word “pact” is defined as a formal agreement or treaty between parties and comes from the Latin word pactum, which means “something agreed upon”. I like the PACT acronym because it emphasizes that the different stakeholders and executives need to agree on the business objectives (or as the management philosophy goes “agree or disagree but commit”). Sometimes I’ve found the agreement on the corporate digital goals to be straightforward because they’ve been clearly defined and communicated throughout an organization by leadership. In many cases, it can be extremely messy because nobody really understands or agrees on the company’s digital strategy and key business objectives. In those scenarios, using the PACT approach for goal measurement will be critical to everyone’s success.

In summary, if you want to be a really smart digital analyst, I’d recommend switching to the PACT criteria for goal measurement, reporting, and analysis. It will help you to make sure you’re capturing the right data and KPIs, providing meaningful reports and dashboards to executives, and identifying actionable insights that really matter to the business. Because companies are not static, PACT approach is something you can lean on as your company’s digital strategy, key business goals, and online initiatives evolve over time. Lock and load, analytics action heroes!

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