Several years ago, I started a website for new writers. I published one or two writing advice articles each month, only if I'd a good idea and time to write one.
I logged into my Google Analytics report regularly to see how my articles performed. When traffic for a particular article dropped, I felt anxious and stressed.
Was my website tanking? Did I need to work on my content creation skills? Should I spend money acquiring backlinks? These minor anxieties prompted me to update underperforming articles regularly.
This strategy worked to a point. But website traffic really took off after I figured out the most important metric for this website: the number of articles published each month.
After mapping out a keyword strategy for the site, I discovered I didn't have the time or expertise to cover all of these articles without help.
So, I hired freelance writers to produce more search-engined optimised articles each month. I commissioned them to write articles about topics like freelance writing, grammar and self-publishing.
Traffic picked up.
Goals vs Systems
Content creators and marketers usually set specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound (SMART goals for their website, podcast, YouTube channel, social media profile or other digital property.
These types of strategic goals are effective because they give you something to work towards. You know what you want to achieve and when, and you have a clear idea of what success looks like.
Standard business goals don't capture the entire picture of a content creator's work. They induce anxiety if you feel like you're falling behind a target. Plus, what happens after you hit this target? Many people find they lose motivation to keep going. You hit a traffic goal? You acquire ten thousand email subscribers? You enjoy your first five-figure month?
Some content creators abandon goals for all these reasons. Instead, they cite systems and habits. They refine a weekly or monthly writing, podcasting or publishing cadence. And they claim downloads, sales and revenue are a happy by-product.
But, how can a content creator tell if their creative habits or strategies are moving them towards or away from the top of their personal Everest?
While systems are influencable, goals offer purpose and direction. So, why compromise? Enter the concept of lead and lag indicators.
Lag measures are useful for reviewing your performance over a period of time. These are the types of numbers you use to evaluate progress towards a goal. Examples include:
- Book, coaching or course sales
- Podcast downloads
- Video views
- Website traffic
- Email subscribers for your marketing campaigns
- Likes, views, shares, followers and other vanity metrics
These metrics are kind of like a temperature check for your content business performance. They reveal if it's healthy or running a potentially critical fever. But you can't control these numbers directly.
A content creator can't immediately increase traffic or sales by pressing a button. And they can't exactly contact Google and ask them: What am I doing wrong?
What's more, it's anxiety-inducing to log into Google Analytics, email marketing software or sales dashboard and see traffic and revenue is down.
You also need a way of deciding what to work on and for how long.
These metrics reveal your likelihood of success with a wildly important goal. They're predictive and inside your control. Example weekly or monthly lead measures for a content creator include:
- Articles and videos published
- Podcast episodes recorded
- Clients contacted
- Interviewees pitched
- A daily word count
- Time spent editing
- Course modules created
- Webinars hosted
You can influence or improve these numbers by rolling up your sleeves or reallocating your business's resources.
Is your website traffic down? Write and update publish more search-optimised articles. Hire more writers.
Are podcast downloads waning? Record more episodes and pitch other shows as an interviewee.
Is your email list growth rate tapering off? Create more content upgrades or chances for readers to opt-in to your list.
Now, let's combine both types of metrics.
Keep a Content Scoreboard
Running a content business is a bit like playing a good video game.
Like a gamer, you're working towards a big goal for the quarter or the year. However, you're also creating and publishing content while working within limitations determined by the distribution channel or format.
You can access regular feedback in terms of traffic stats, subscribers and customers. Furthermore, you can allocate resources towards or away from particular marketing and content creation strategies. Finally, you can always choose to keep playing the content creation game or try something else.
Any good video gamer understands the importance of a scoreboard. It provides at-a-glance information into how they're performing at any one point in time.
So, create one for your content business:
Firstly, pick one of your wildly important goals. Next, determine a single lead and lag measure for this goal. I recommend one to start with, to avoid overcomplicating matters.
For example, for my site Become a Writer Today, I picked unique website visitors as my lag measure. And I selected articles published per week as my lead measure.
Now, set a quarterly target for your lead and lag measures. Create a scoreboard in a spreadsheet or using an Airtable database. Each week log the lead and lag indicator metrics in a dated column. These numbers will help you determine:
- Is my strategy effective?
- Did I use my resources (time and money) efficiently this week?
Reviewing both lead and lag measures regularly will help you plan with purpose.
Lead and Lag Measures In Practice
He's an aspiring podcaster who wants to create a popular show about workplace productivity. He believes his podcast will help him attract more potential coaching clients and students for his online courses.
Every hour of produced audio takes approximately three to five hours' work for Pete, after factoring in time spent researching, recording, editing and preparing the episode for publication.
Example Lead Metrics
Pete needs to free up six hours a week out of his working week to focus on his podcast … or a single working day. His lead measures are:
- Podcasts recorded per week with a target of 2
- Podcasts pitched so Pete could appear as a guest and promote his show
- Interviewees pitched for Pete's show
His lag measures are:
- Podcast downloads
- Podcasts published
Now, Pete can gauge if he's ahead or behind by reviewing his creative lead measures every Friday as part of his weekly review.
When Pete's ahead, he can slow down recording and move to another project like recording lessons for a course … or even take time off. If he falls behind, Pete should roll up his sleeves by pitching and recording more shows.
Pete's lag measures reveal if his podcast strategy is working and plan the following week accordingly.
Example Lag Metrics
She wants to update old content on her primary niche yoga website as traffic is fluctuating. In addition, her email list growth is also tapering off.
Susan has plans for building a niche website about tea, but budget is an issue as she doesn't have the time to write this content herself. In this case, Susan decides on these lead indicators:
- Optimising 5 existing articles a month on her primary site
- Setting up content upgrades on 5 new posts on her primary website to grow her email list
- Publishing 25 new articles a month on her new site at 10 cents a word
Susan picks these lag indicators:
- Website traffic for her primary site (it will take a few months before her secondary site attracts traffic)
- Email list size
- Earnings from her primary site
Now, Susan can see if where to spend her time. She can also gauge if her content optimisation plan is working based on traffic levels and email list growth.
If revenue for website one looks good, she can continue with commissioning articles for website number two. On the other hand, if revenue tapers off, she can double down on her other lead measures.
In effect, she can sit back from both projects, review the battlefield and then allocate her resources, which are time and money, more effectively.
Do Metrics Take the Fun Out of Creative Work?
If you're creating for yourself without any expectations of getting paid or sharing a message, by all means, do away with lead and lag measures.
Otherwise, remember the advice of New York Times journalist David Brook's:
Think like an artist, but work like an accountant.
Without meaningful metrics, you're unlikely to achieve your creative goals. These metrics are constraining, yes, but they will help creativity thrive.
Lead and lag measures work well together because they combine the best parts of a system with setting SMART creative goals.
How to Determine Your Metrics
You don't need to set painfully ambitious daily or weekly lead and lag indicators for your small business. For example, the author Graham Greene set himself a target of writing 500 words a day every day no matter what.
He did all right.
Whatever you want to create, set a target lead and a lag measure for each area of your creative business. You don't need to spend hours tracking dozens of metrics either.
It should only take a few minutes to gather all of this information every Friday or Sunday. Track your lead and lag measures in a scoreboard (for example, a spreadsheet or an Airtable database), so you can compare one week to the next and adjust your focus.
Lead and Lag Measures: The Final Word
Creative goals are useful, but in isolation, they can induce anxiety. Systems and creative habits are nice, but it's still good to know what direction you're heading in. If you're running a content business, combine the best of both using lead and lag measures.
If you want to learn more about lead and lag measures, I recommend reading The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney, Jim Huling and Sean Covey.
Tips for Your KPIs
- Fewer metrics are better. Add one lead and one lag measure or metric for each goal.
- When creating a scoreboard, avoid unnecessary complexity. Instead, pick a lead and lag measure you can gauge instantly or at the end of the day.