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Why Benchmarks are (Practically) Worthless and What You Should Do Instead

About a week ago, someone I follow on Twitter posted their opinion about benchmarks, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

He said something to the effect of benchmarks are worthless. The only good benchmark to follow is if you’re improving.

I agreed with him. From the time I first started doing digital marketing, benchmarks have been talked about- especially with email campaigns. But also around social media and digital marketing.

Benchmarks have been around forever. They’re a measuring stick to compare yourself to.

However, there are so many variables involved in marketing that benchmarks aren’t very helpful. In fact, they can be a place to hide for a lot of marketers.

Here’s what I mean by that.

The campaigns you run will be different. Some are intended to drive awareness and build trust. Some are designed to encourage an action to be taken, such as downloading an e-book or whitepaper.

Every market is different.

Every segment within that market is different.

Products and services that companies sell are different.

Whenever I’ve looked at benchmarks, I’ve never even been able to figure out what industry I’m supposed to group myself in.

You could argue that you’re in the medical industry, so it’s easy. There’s a benchmark for medical industry email open rates.

But what aspect of medical to you play in? Are you in medical research? Medical devices? Medical services? Do you think the same message could be sent to someone in each of these markets, and you’d have the same results?

The answer is no.

Benchmarks are a Convenient Place to Hide

Benchmarks also make for a convenient place to hide. There are numerous studies done that will provide you with a range of benchmarks. Any of which you could select as the one you want to use to track against. You can tell your manager why you’re using it and they will likely buy in. Meanwhile, you know it’s an easy target and let’s you off the hook.

When you present your results in a meeting you can show how well you’re tracking against “the industry standard” and provide a source at the bottom of your slide as validation.

As long as you’re within range, no change is needed. No need to improve your campaign’s performance. You’re safe in hiding.

How Does That Even Matter?

A couple of weeks ago, I had registered for a webinar about benchmarking and recruiting emails. I’m no longer in recruiting, but I wanted to see what they had to say.

I left after about 12 minutes – shortly after they showed a graphic detailing email open rates based on company size, I knew I was in the wrong place.

What the hell does company size have to do with email open rates and engagement? What’s the correlation? There is none.

The only benchmark you need to concern yourself with is if you’re getting the intended results from your campaigns. You can look at benchmarks to get a ballpark for what’s happening across a bunch of unrelated industries or markets, but don’t reward or punish yourself or your team based on their performance compared to the benchmarks you just saw.

If you see that most of the open rates are between 25%-35% and your campaign has a 5% open rate, you know you have a big problem.

But now you have your own baseline and benchmark to improve upon. Your only focus now should be on testing different elements and improving upon that result.

Testing is key. Your customers are different. Your products are different. Test. Test. Test. Find what works, then repeat, and add on something else to test.

Marketing is one part art, one part science. Science involves hypotheses and testing. Marketing is no different.


Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Travis L. Scott

Travis is the Managing Partner/Founder of RainierDigital. He has over 10 years of digital marketing and advertising experience. He has worked at companies ranging from startups (Jobster) to Fortune 500 (Microsoft, Comcast, Cricket Wireless). Travis has a BS in Public Affairs from Indiana University and a MBA in Marketing from the University of Colorado.

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