The Most Important Business KPIs. (Spoiler: Not Conversion Rate!)

I was reading a paper by a respected industry body that started by flagging head fake KPIs. I love that moniker, head fake.

Likes. Sentiment/Comments. Shares. Yada, yada, yada.

This is great. We can all use head fake metrics to calling out useless activity metrics.

[I would add other head fake KPIs to the list: Impressions. Reach. CPM. Cost Per View. Others of the same ilk. None of them are KPIs, most barely qualify to be a metric because of the profoundly questionable measurement behind them.]

The respected industry body quickly pivoted to lamenting their findings that demonstrate eight of the top 12 KPIs being used to measure media effectiveness are exposure-counting KPIs.

A very good lament.

But, then they then quickly pivot to making the case that the Most Important KPIs for Media are ROAS, Exposed ROAS, “Direct Online Sales Conversions from Site Visit” (what?!), Conversion Rate, IVT Rate (invalid traffic rate), etc.

Wait a minute.


Most important KPI?

No siree, Bob! No way.

Take IVT as an example. It is such a niche obsession.

Consider that Display advertising is a tiny part of your budget. A tiny part of that tiny part is likely invalid. It is not a leap to suggest that it is a big distraction from what's important to anoint this barely-a-metric as a KPI.  Oh, and if your display traffic was so stuffed with invalid traffic that it is a burning platform requiring executive attention… Any outcome KPI you are measuring (even something basic as Conversion Rate) would have told you that already!

Conversion Rate obviously is a fine metric. Occasionally, I might call it a KPI, but I have never anointed it as the Most Important KPI.

In my experience, Most Important KPIs are those that are tied to money going into your bank account.

The paper from the respected body made me open PowerPoint and create a visual that would make the case for never identifying Conversion Rate or ROAS the Most Important KPI in your company / practice of analytics.

We expect greatness from our work, let’s focus on great KPIs.

This blog post was originally published as an edition of my newsletter TMAI Premium. It is published 50x/year, and shares bleeding-edge thinking about Marketing, Analytics, and Leadership. You can sign up here. All revenues from your subscription are donated to charity.


The Money In-Out Continuum | Intro.

When I think  of importance, I have five elements in mind.

Let’s identify them first.

The Money Making Continuum

To make money, you have to spend money. The law of God.

That’s the red box on your left.

Revenue is what the customer will pay for a product or a service. It is a range above because some products and services you sell for more, others for less.

Media Costs is the amount you have to spend on advertising (a category that also includes your Owned and Earned efforts – after all SEO, Email, Organic Social all cost money).

Hopefully, you spend less on acquiring the order than the revenue you earned. Hopefully. :)

Obviously, whatever you sell is not free to you.

Cost of Goods Sold (CoGS) is the amount it costs you to manufacture the product or the service.

As an example, revenue from selling an iPhone is approx. $1,099 and the CoGS is approx. $490. (Source: Investopedia.)

But. Wait. $609 is not all Profit. There’s more to account for.

Fully Loaded Costs (FLCo) contains the costs associated with salaries of human and robotic employees, agency fees, depreciation associated with building, free doughnuts on Fridays for all employees, credit card processing fees, discounts, and the long laundry lists of things that goes into producing the product/service that you sold to earn revenue.

I’ve represented FLCo (I’m pronouncing that as flock, what do you think?) as a smallish bar above, I don’t need to stress just how big it can be. Hence, crucial to measure and account for.

$$$ – something close to Profit – is the money left over that will go into your bank account.

Money at last. Money at last. Thank God almighty, we have money at last!


The Money In-Out Continuum | KPIs.

Now that we have a common understanding of the elements that form the money in-out continuum, we can layer in what it is that we understand when we measure every day metrics — and the ones anointed Most Important KPIs by the respected industry group.

Let's lay out the depth of what each KPI measures on our continuum.

The Money Making Continuum | KPIs

Conversion Rate is a fine metric. A junior Analyst – even a budding reporting-focused new hire – should be watching it.

But. As illustrated above:

1. It is very, very, very far from the green, and2. It does not have any sense of what it cost you to get that conversion!

You can, literally, go bankrupt increasing your Conversion Rate.

(Hence, at the very minimum, pair up Conversion Rate with Average Order Value to get an initial whiff of doom.)

Conversion Rate is not a Most Important KPI.

Return on Ad Spend (ROAS) is an ok metric.

It is typically computed by dividing the Revenue from Advertising by the Cost of Advertising (a.k.a. Media Costs). You times that by 100, and you get a ROAS %.

ROAS only sucks less. It remains very, very, very far away from the green. Additionally, by aggregating products/services into lumpy groups, it can give a misleading sense of success.

[Disclosure: I profoundly dislike ROAS — even hate it — for, among other reasons, driving a disproportionate amount of obsession with ONLY Paid Media by CMOs when Paid Media typically delivers a minority of the incremental business revenue. Bonus Read: Attribution is not incrementality.]

Gross Profit is revenue minus Media Costs minus CoGS.

Now, you have yourself a KPI! Not yet the Most Important KPI, but a KPI nonetheless.

In the past, I’ve recommended using Custom Metrics in tools like Google Analytics to compute Gross Profit. You can do this using an aggregate % number that you can lop off for CoGS. At the very minimum, your Traffic Sources report does not have to stop at Revenue (misleading much?).

With Google’s Data Studio, you can actually bring item level CoGS in and easily compute Gross Profit for every single order you get.

It. Will. Change. Your. Life.

Net Profit then is revenue minus Media Costs minus CoGS minus FLCo.

Finally, you have something super cool.

You can work with your Finance team to get FLCo. You’ll get a different number for your Owned, Earned, Paid media strategies. You’ll have a number that’ll accommodate for a sale that might have happened on your website vs. retail store vs. placed on website but picked up on retail, etc.

You can build this into Google’s Data Studio if you like. Or, the Business Intelligence tool of choice used by your company.

Net Profit totally qualifies for the Most Important KPI tag.

It helps identify how much money you created that is going into the bank, and what it is that you did exactly to create that money.

Yep. Understanding that will deliver a transformative impact on your business.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that it will also shock your CMO.

The Money In-Out Continuum | The Problem.

I say this with some confidence that none of your reports for digital, and barely any reports for the entire business, currently report on either one of the above two Most Important KPIs.


Simple. You are using Adobe Analytics or Google Analytics or some such tool, and they have no built-in concept of 1. Media Costs 2. CoGS, and 3. FLCo.

Sure, if you connect Google Analytics to your Google Ads account, #1 becomes easy. You have Media Costs. But, in addition to Google, you are advertising on a ton of other channels and getting all those costs is a pain – even when possible.

Obviously, digital analytics tools have no concept of #2 (CoGS) or #3 (FLCo).

You are stuck making poor business decisions, in the best case scenario, at stage two of the Stages of Savvy.

This is not enough.

The Money Making Continuum | Stages of Savvy

To build a strategy to address this gap in your analytics strategy…  My recommendation is to break out of the limitations that your digital analytics tools, and shift to your business intelligence tools (start with exhausting the features Data Studio provides you with for the magnificent cost of zero dollars – lower FLCo!).

Recognize that Analysis Ninjas live at stage 3, and they truly come into their own when they get to stage 4.

Is this true for you? Does your analytical output include Net Profit?

By a staggering coincidence, Analysis Ninjas who live in stages 3 and 4 also have long, productive, well-compensated careers! Because getting there is hard, AND it requires building out a wide array of cross-functional relationships (always crucial when it comes to annual performance reviews!).


The Money In-Out Continuum | The Most Important KPI.

Obviously, the most important KPI is the one you are not measuring.

Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) is the sum of Net Profit earned from a customer over the duration they are your customer.

Say I buy the Pixel 1 phone from Google, and Google makes $50 Net Profit from that sale.

Then, I buy the Pixel 2, Pixel 3a, and Pixel 4a. Google makes $60, $60, and $60 Net Profit (they save on advertising costs to me, which translates into higher profit).

Then, for reasons related to innovativeness, I switch to Samsung and buy a Z Flip 3 (great phone!).

The Money Making Continuum | Customer Lifetime Value

My CLV for Google is: 50+60+60+60 = $230.

I originally converted to buying a Pixel 1 after typing best android phone into Bing.

Analytics tools, configured right, with analysis done by Stage 4 Analysts, will show a Net Profit of $50 driven by Bing.

Except, it is $230.

Cool, right?

So. Why don’t we all calculate CLV every day and every night, and then some more of it on the weekend?

Because it is hard.

Go all the way back up and reflect on why is it that we are satisfied with Conversion Rate or ROAS vs. Gross Profit?

Because it is easy.

It is so hard to get to Gross and Net Profit.

Then, to be able to keep track of that same person (me, in the above Pixel example). Then, wait for me to churn so that you get my CLV. Oh, and remember to have systems interconnected enough to keep track of every touchpoint with me to ensure you attribute accurately.

It is hard.

Of course, you don’t have to do the computation for every individual. You can do it by micro-segments (like type people, same geo, age groups, products, etc. etc.). You can do it in aggregate.

Sadly, none of these is easy.

Hence. You don’t do it.

No matter what CLV zealots will tell you.

If they make you feel bad. Don’t feel bad.

My advice is twofold:

1. Keep your primary quest to get to stage 4 (Net Profit) because the quality of your insights will improve by 10x.2. (If you don’t have it already) Create a long-term plan to understand the lifetime value of a customer for your company.

Execute that advice in that order, and you'll get to the global maxima faster.

As you contemplate your strategy for #2 above, my dear friend David Hughes helped write one of my favorite posts on this blog: Excellent Analytics Tip #17: Calculate Customer Lifetime Value.

Read it. Internalize the recommendations. Download the detailed lifetime value model included in the post, and jumpstart your journey.


Bottom Line.

It is unlikely that any of you reading this blog on advanced analytics is measuring a head fake metric. You realize the futility already.

I also believe that you and I can do more to move beyond stage 1 and stage 2 of the stages of savvy. And, I hope I’ve encouraged you to do that today. It is so worth it.

I believe almost all of us can do more to be on a CLV journey — but not at the cost of losing focus in stages 3 and stage 4.

Let’s get to it!

As always, it is your turn now.

Via comments, please share your critique, reflections, tips and your KPI lessons from the front lines of trying to drive material business impact. What do you disagree with above? What has been the hardest nut for you to crack in your career?

The Premium edition of my weekly newsletter shares solutions to your real-world challenges while unpacking future-looking opportunities. Subscribe here.



  1. 1

    Hey Avinash – long time no speak. And happy new year! Please continue to evangelize in 2021! It remains important!

    I am working with an organization which does not sell. It has no product or services. It exists to promote a category as a whole to specific target audiences. We do not control any other parts of the marketing mix (i.e. price, distribution, sales promotion, packaging, seasonality, etc.; we do not sell, convert to sales, have no retail sales/first party data, etc.).

    All we do is promote the category as a whole to select (but pretty broad) target audiences with a 80% digital, 20% traditional media mix. We have looked at "empty calorie" metrics as well as category health metrics with the target as indicators.

    I am interested to get your thoughts on this type of campaign. If you prefer, we can take that discussion direct/via email. Thanks!

    • 2

      Maarten: Great question.

      Over Christmas, I finished writing a two part Premium newsletter series focusing on B2B analytics, it'll be sent out the second and third weeks of Jan. Look for that for a detailed framework, and specific recommendations as to what to measure in cases like yours.

      Broadly speaking, there are three things to consider:

      1. Primary Purpose. (In your case, I counted five micro outcomes, all of which I would track to get a sense for real customer influence. I would also use a session level survey to assess shift in perception – primary brand KPI for you.)

      2. Content Value. (in your case, there is a lot of interesting content, say recipes, but it seems boring in its delivery. It is hard to understand why I would end up on your site vs. the 3 million others. Using Page Value type metrics, there is a lot of optimization that will have a big impact.)

      3. Destination Fit. (In your case, I'm not sure where most of the traffic comes from – I don't have your data! :) – but I would work to understand the metrics related to Acquisition – even if driven by others – to create a destination aligned with acquisition strategies.)

      I hope this helps a bit. Good luck!


      PS: Bonus: Checkout this blog post: The Very Best Digital Metrics For 15 Different Companies!. Specifically, see the recommendations I have for Newspapers (Tampa Bay Times), Non-Profits (Smile Train), Movie Studio (Fate of Furious), Food Company (McCormick). They might spark new ideas for you.

      • 3

        Hey Avinash – did you publish the two part premium newsletter you referenced in your answer, and if so where can I procure it please? Thanks!

        • 4

          Maarten:It was a ton of effort, but I did write them. They went out the first couple weeks of Jan.

          If you are a TMAI Premium subscriber, you should have them in your inbox (or checkout your spam folder). If you are not, just sign up, and you'll get them as well. If you bump into any issues, just email me.


  2. 5

    Always great insights Avinash.

    Just starting to use Data Studio but calculating CLV is Way above what I get to do with my clientele, though. Small business owners just don't take the time to glance at my reports these days.

    They are juggling just too many other balls (hiring and employee retention at the top of the list these days).

    I read your posts because…one day I'll work with bigger fish. For now, I am content with being a stage 3 Savvy SEO.

    • 6

      Tom: You are doing God's work! Please keep going.

      I agree that for smaller businesses (or smaller products/divisions inside a larger company) the computation of CLV is difficult (sometimes perhaps not even worth it). In those instances, getting to stage #3 of savvy is still great – and I'm glad you are pushing that far.


  3. 7

    I usually work with ecommerce businesses to help them become a SEO and conversion driven business and I run into the challenges you present here with every single one of them.

    Yes, it is hard (as an outsider) to even get to CoGS, never mind FLCo. So, I keep on churning out conversion rate and ROAS reports with recommendations.

    Sometimes when I try to help my client see the bigger picture of getting to the goal by knowing the other numbers, they start to wig out on me and bring up potential legal issues, blah blah blah (probably means you're hurting my head now).

    Anyway, I am kinda interested in what you call an "Analysis Ninja". What job titles might that translate into?

    • 8

      Tom: One challenge we all face, you likely face it a bit worse as an external expert, is that COGS and FLCo are numbers that will come from Finance. And, we have to invest in becoming BFFs with them to get those numbers. It is not easy.

      My initial approach is to just get rough numbers (these are easier to come by). What's the approximate COGS for this product, I'll apply it as an initial estimate to get to profit? They might say after some thinking/looking, 65%. Great. I can play with that. The first time you produce the report, the marketing performance will look so bad, they will work to get you the right numbers. :)

      Analysis Ninja is a term I created (to go with Reporting Squirrel) to identify people who obsess about analysis, advanced analysis, more than reporting or more and more and more data collection. Senior Analysts and Data Scientists tend to be real life titles of people who fit the moniker.


  4. 9

    Very insightful as always, thanks for enlighting us!

    Regading ROAS, I have to admit, I don't find it very actionable on an aggregated level. I find more actionable to accompany ROAS with Average Order Value and Media Cost per Order, along with revenue. If you segment these metrics by product, campaign etc can be insightful. If you have the data, you can apply the same logic to stages 3 and 4 using Average Gross/Net Profit per Order, depending on the stage.

    Improving the Average Order Value is a bit hard in many cases. Marketing and media teams have more influence on the Cost per Order, that essentially is the Average CPC (or CPM) divided by Conversion rate. In most cases this means control of CPC/CPM since improving Conversion Rate is not that easy and takes time.


    • 10

      Ioannis: Very fair observations. Your approach is good. Thank you.

      In some company cultures, the focus on cost costs them to lose on volume or competitive opportunities. I can keep costs to, say, $20 per acquisition and get 100 sales. But, moving cost to $40 might mean 1000 sales (though of course for less profit). Hence, my belief is that cost can be a limiting factor.

      We HAVE to keep costs reasonable, of course. Costs combined with Profit, Volume, a bit of sensitivity analysis looking across all three can help us be smarter.


  5. 11

    thanks for sharing this essential content-piece, Avinash

    there are certainly many approaches to the topic of “best” business KPIs and many metrics could be applied, depending on the business model, market and perhaps also the economic branch.

    From my experience (unfortunately) I can confirm that many online businesses focus on the wrong metrics and get lost in the jungle of "KPIs", metrics & "values" they measure.

    so, your quote "In my experience, most Important KPIs are those that are tied to money going into your bank account." made my day.

    looking forward to the insights of your two part premium newsletter series focusing on B2B analytics. as a business model primarily based on leads often needs a total different „story“.

    have a good and productive 2022

    kind regards – michael

  6. 12

    Hi Avinash,

    Very good article.

    I guess the obsession of the internet industry towards ROAS is more due to multiple startups focusing more on user growth & less on net profitability in the initial stages. As the company/startup becomes more mature /stable ( funding to listing phase ) then companies look towards net profitability & LTV.

    I used to do analysis in Adobe analytics for calculating LTV .I used to create a segment of users who are coming from paid channels & then subsequently came through direct /SEO channels.

    It was very easy to build segments like these in Adobe analytics & this helped us to see correct LTV

Add your Perspective