Why Not Measuring a Damn Thing Might Be Just What You Need.

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Suggested Music Pairing: "BRNT" by Magic City Hippies

We live in an outcome-obsessed culture.

There’s a lot of things that contribute to this. You could blame it on impatience. You could blame it on laziness. You could blame it on an obsession with success stories.

And you’d be partially correct with any of those.

But I think an oft-overlooked factor with our outcome fetish is the persistent focus on goals and metrics.

Goals and Metrics

Goals and metrics are a good thing. I’m a firm believer in the idea that you improve what you measure.

But the unintended consequence of our love for goals and metrics is that the outcome becomes the “it.” The product of our work itself is often overshadowed by how much it makes, how much it weighs, or how many people saw it.

Sure, an avid cyclist might work hard to shorten her race time, but if you asked her what she loves about cycling, I doubt her answer will be “Shaving seconds off my time.” She would be more likely to say something about the wind in her hair, the feeling of speeding down the highway, and the endorphin rush that accompanies extreme physical feats.

My friend Jay Acunzo uses the game theory term ‘telic’ to describe this idea in the content creation world.

“A telic activity is something done for the end result alone, i.e., a chore. It’s tedious to do and so you look for easier ways to get to the end.”

But even chores can have some joy in the process. Take it from Roger Mifflin, the fictional proprietor of “The Haunted Bookshop” from Christopher Morley’s novella of the same name:

“It is intolerable for a human being to go on doing any task as a penance, under duress. No matter what the work is, one must spiritualize it in some way, shatter the old idea of it into bits and rebuild it nearer to the heart's desire.”

Mifflin goes on to illustrate his point, using dish washing as an example:

"When one views a stubborn fact from a new angle, it is amazing how all its contours and edges change shape! Immediately my dishpan began to glow with a kind of philosophic halo! The warm, soapy water became a sovereign medicine to retract hot blood from the head; the homely act of washing and drying cups and saucers became a symbol of the order and cleanliness that man imposes on the unruly world about him.”

Even the most mundane of tasks can be “spiritualized” in a way that makes the process enjoyable. And in doing so (I would argue), the quality of the work is improved.

Etsy's Craft Fair - Damn the Numbers!

My office is located in Dumbo, Brooklyn (the actual name of the neighborhood, not trashing the good borough of BK). Dumbo is a burgeoning tech hub, with several startup incubator spaces and a few big names all calling it home. One of those big names is Etsy.

A few weeks back, I went to grab lunch and saw a bunch of orange balloons tied off in front of the entrance to a small space on the ground floor of our office building. As I walked down the sidewalk towards my favorite food truck, I saw signs and sidewalk chalk all pointing people to the “Etsy Craft Event.”

Inside, the floor was covered in orange confetti. A photo booth in the corner filled the room with strobe flashes. Several people stood in front of a wall-sized piece of paper, filling in the colorless canvas with a rainbow of colored pencils. Spread throughout the room were three tables, each featuring a different craft visitors could complete.

I’ve been trying to get a meet-up group off the ground in NYC for over a year now, with mixed results. Simply put, getting people to show up to an event is hard work. Given the resources I assume Etsy must have at their disposal, I wanted to see how they pulled off an event like this.

I wanted to know what they were measuring. What was their desired outcome? What would be considered a success?

Surely a large company with a sophisticated marketing operation like Etsy would have strict data recording requirements to prove ROI, right?

After scoping the scene, I approached someone wearing an Etsy shirt and told her how much I enjoyed the event, and asked about how they pulled it off.

She explained that the craft event was a recurring event that they host around the country. Each event partners with various local shops in the neighborhood by having them host a craft station in their stores. Participants can grab a map at the main location (where I was), then walk through the neighborhood to each station/business, making a different craft at each.

“Here’s what I really want to know,” I said to her. “I work in marketing, and I’d love to know what you guys would consider a successful event? Are you counting how many people come in or how many go on to create Etsy accounts?”

“Nope,” she replied.

“...oh! Really?”

“Yeah, our goal for this is really just to get the community engaged and for everyone to have a good time.”

She went on to explain how Etsy’s default interaction with their customer base is digital. People browse, shop, and sell online. But the products themselves are notably “old school.” Handmade items, created by craft-driven people with care for their customers.

That doesn’t really jive with the online-only mechanics of the site.

So the craft event is Etsy’s chance to bring their brand and all it stands for face-to-face with the public. They can build phenomenal brand awareness in a unique way, all while building relationships with local businesses that will pay dividends down the road.

But I would argue that the very reason they ARE able to do this is because they’ve freed themselves from the burden of a numerical goal that directly translates to more business for the company.

“You improve what you measure” cuts both ways. Sometimes it helps you focus on what’s important and make a real impact. Other times, it over incentivises a specific outcome, leading teams to force their desires on the customer, no matter what the customer wants.

Had the goal been to sign up X number of new Etsy users, I would have been pestered by event workers with iPads attempting to get me to create an account.

That’s bad for the user.

So they said “to hell with that,” and focused solely on creating a fun event. The quality was the only thing that mattered.

And that’s indicative of their brand as a whole. Sellers on Etsy (or at least the ones Etsy is trying to attract) aren’t concerned with churning out the cheapest product as possible to keep their margins high. They want to create a quality product. Something that will mean a lot to the person who buys it. They’re willing to spend a little extra money, because the buyer knows they’re getting something unique.

The end product is something far more valuable than a short term win from an event. It’s a lasting brand experience that will pay off for the company for years.

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