What We Talk About When We Talk About Benchmarks

My Journey To Understand Why Humans Are Obsessed with Benchmarking Begins Today.


At Unmetric we deal with benchmarks everyday. We provide data that helps brands understand how their efforts compare to that of competitors in the realm of Social Media. Direct competitors, industry averages, your own prior efforts — how you stack up is critical to understanding whether or not you are progressing. But in all this data, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.

Benchmarking is the fundamental metric our culture uses as a form of validation, self-worth and all too often, measurement of happiness. In the proper dosage, benchmarking can be a tool for motivation and improvement. Taken to its extremes it can lead to radical cosmetic surgery, embezzlement, prejudice and other forms of societal ills as people focus on comparing themselves to others.


“ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL, BUT SOME ANIMALS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.”


So, what do you do if you are the Head of Global Marketing for a company that traffics in benchmarking? Are you, by default, part of the problem? Just another tool that provides ‘vanity’ metrics, encouraging people to keep up with the Joneses (or in our case, the Coca-Colas, Toyotas or American Airlines). Well, you can, as we do, provide a host of other analytics and data that provide a broader, more holistic view. But increasingly, I think the answer is that a greater level of thought is required. Our engineers and developers are constantly looking for new ways to deliver information or new information to bubble up for our users. As a non-tech guy I’m always amazed by what they can do.


But can we look at benchmarking from another perspective? A non-quant perspective that asks different sorts of questions? What if I asked questions that spoke to the psychology of benchmarking — the ‘whys’ rather than the ‘whats.’

And so I decided that an exploration of the idea of benchmarking was worth pursuing. I would speak to people — our clients, people at other martech platforms, partners, colleagues, friends, authors — anyone who I thought might have an interesting or unique perspective on the issue. Perhaps this will lead to a deeper exploration inside Unmetric on the types of data we provide, or how we present it, or maybe it will change the way we think about the value of benchmarking.

But also, it will be an introspective journey. What is my personal relationship to benchmarking. As I type this, I remind myself that I have to recharge the battery on my Fitbit. Gotta log some serious miles if I’m going to catch Virginia Miracle, a friend and member of the marketing community who is about 5,ooo steps ahead of me right now. Quite honestly, I’m a little afraid of what I’m going to discover when I scrutinize the myriad ways in which benchmarking is woven into the fabric of my life.


Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this experiment is the juxtaposition — the ying/yang nature — of leaping into the unknown on a topic that by its very nature is about the known. It may be true that numbers never lie, but as science becomes increasingly more sophisticated we find new layers to explore and these layers tend to look less like the hard sciences we know and open themselves up to query more philosophical in nature.

I’ll end this first entry by positing a Mission Statement for this project:

Can we gain a better understanding of the relationship of numbers — us to them, and them to each other — by asking non-mathematical questions?

I hope this question, and the subsequent questions I ask to find the answers, will be of interest to you. If you have thoughts on the issue, please add them to this or future posts, or drop me a line via email. Thank you.