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Choosing the right metrics for your website

14 January 2015

Getting to grips with defining helpful metrics can be a challenging process, yet it’s vital for justifying the spend on a website and getting the most from it.

Here are some tips to help you choose metrics which will help you move towards a continuous cycle of improvement.

Avoid vanity metrics

Vanity metrics are those that sound impressive but don't tell the full story, eg. Twitter followers or blog post views.

The draw of vanity metrics is strong. A client recently told me one of the metrics imposed by their funder was to “increase website traffic by 200%.” This is an unhelpful metric for a couple of reasons.

First, you can’t assume a direct correlation between traffic and other site objectives. This correlation must be justified in reference to outcomes such as donations or membership applications.

Second, while vanity metrics like site traffic are not totally without meaning, they rarely lead to actionable conclusions. If you fail at your objective of increasing traffic it is very hard to know why, and what levers to pull to address the issue. Lack of traffic is bad because it implies irrelevance and high traffic is usually good because it implies you are doing something right.

The key question your website objectives should address is what are you doing right (or wrong)? Good metrics lead to informed action.

Avoid objectives that are out of your control

The first response to vanity metrics like traffic can be a swing to the other extreme. Metrics like “increase donations” or “increase memberships” feel more solid as they have a direct relationship with a charity's bottom line. These metrics suffer from similar problems. Because your charity's bottom line depends on things like donations or memberships, it’s fair to assume a significant amount of effort from across the organisation is going towards these goals. This leads to confusion about what causes what.

If donations increase by 100% following the release of a new website, it’s only a meaningful metric if you can confidently claim the website caused this increase. But this claim is a bold one. Perhaps an unrelated campaign went really well and pushed huge amounts of traffic to the website?

Moving toward meaningful metrics

So what is a good metric? A good website metric typically has the following characteristics:

  • Narrow (its causal factors are uncontroversial)
  • Measurable
  • Informs action

A good place to start with metrics is to focus on a specific page or section of your website and ask:

  • What is this page trying to achieve?
  • What action do I want users to take when they reach this page?
  • Why do I want them to achieve this action?
  • How do I measure whether they have done what I want them to do?

Metrics for incremental development

Helpful metrics inform action, and also highlight issues in website development. While funding cycles and donor requirements often necessitate a one-off large spend on a website, successful websites involve regular injections of time and effort to act on the lessons learned through measuring performance. 

In a small organisation where resources are tight, you may feel you simply don't have time to engage with metrics. However, small steps in this direction can be invigorating. Encouraging staff and volunteers to create content can be difficult, but is easier if you can explain clearly how these activities will directly support organisational goals.

Andy Pearson

managing director, White Fuse

Andy Pearson is a co-founder and Managing Director of White Fuse, a digital agency for charities. A former solicitor, he is passionate about the responsibility of business to positively impact society and a believer in the power of the triple bottom line. He writes for the White Fuse Blog and at Business Beginnings with start-up advice for businesses, charities and social enterprises.