Goals, objectives and KPIs are vital in describing what an organisation does and why. Understanding how these key terms differ and when to use them in your communication evaluation and reporting is important to avoid widespread confusion.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 23 seconds
Goals are somewhat similar to objectives and KPIs but are different in certain key aspects that set them apart.
A goal is aspirational, whereas an objective is operational. The goal or goals of an organisation are typically long-term and tied to its vision and mission. Goals are usually fairly general, whereas objectives are much more specific.
That means that goals also often become very fuzzy or vague and difficult to measure. But because their nature is aspirational they can be a great motivator or ‘guiding star’.
Examples of common strategic goals for an organisation are:
- “We want to be the preferred supplier of X service or product to Y target audience”
- “We want to create a world in which people no longer have to live with X” (e.g. disease, carbon emitting cars, the fear of being in danger)
- “We want to bring a better standard of living to Y target audience” (e.g. making sure families can buy affordable homes)
You will notice that most if not all goals are also transformational in nature – they describe a journey from position A (now) to position B (the future), or a development from situation A (now) to situation B (the future).
Below such very lofty statements you sometimes find a more ‘internal’ sub-set of goals that help the organisation define what they are supposed to do. These statements are not specific enough to be considered objectives, nor are they inspiring enough to be used in the external marketing or as the organisation’s ‘guiding star’ or vision/mision statement to motivate the employees.
But they are more actionable and can thus provide a link or ‘bridge’ down to the objectives following in the next level of the hierarchy below them:
- Increase profit margin
- Increase efficiency
- Capture a bigger market share
- Provide better customer service
- Improve employee training
- Reduce carbon emissions
(credit for examples to Don Hofstrand, Iowa State University)
Generally speaking, if there are several ways to go about accomplishing a stated intention, it is likely a goal, not an objective. You might also say that goals are generally strategic in nature, whereas objectives are tactical.
Below goals in the hierarchy we have objectives and KPI’s that are often both much more operational and specific than goals. Objectives can be confused for goals and KPIs can be confused for objectives, so we shall deal with them in that order.
An objective is, generally speaking, set to accomplish goals. They are more short-term, more specific, much more clearly defined as actions or steps that need to be taken in order to succeed.
The SMART method helps you define an objective that is: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. You should always check any objective you create or are given against the SMART checklist.
Compared to a goal, an objective is small-scale and dealing with a specific issue that needs to be solved. I like to use the metaphor that if a goal constitutes a journey from A to B, each ‘step’ that you take on that journey requires an objective. So, accomplishing a goal actually means accomplishing a string of underlying objectives, either in succession or simultaneously.
Examples of (not-so-specific) (communication) objectives might be:
- Through targeted messaging increase the audience’s understanding of how to apply correctly for funding (in order to cut down on time wasted processing wrongly filed applications)
- Increase target audience’s understanding of how to turn leftovers into delicious meals (in order to avoid food waste and gain momentum and increased support for the Stop Food Waste movement)
- Increase trust in the police and authorities (to make more people willing to report serious crimes)
- Turn customers into fans by increasing their loyalty and appreciation of the product (to get them to advocate the product to their friends and peers).
Because objectives are much more specific than goals, they are easy to measure (as long as you act SMART). Where goals describe a transformation, journey or development, an objective describes a specific desired outcome of a planned activity or task.
The abbreviation KPI stands for Key Performance Indicator, meaning a metric used to measure an ongoing and continuous process. It is a term used to describe how you are going to measure how an organisation or team is performing in relation to a priority you have set strategically or tactically.
Some very common examples of ‘performance’ related to communication or marketing / sales are:
- Reach – how many potential new customers were exposed to our messaging in the past month?
- Traffic – how many visitors is our web page receiving each day, week or month?
- Average number of news stories generated in a month
- Average PR-score for news stories generated in e.g. a month
- Percentage of news stories that fall in the positive / neutral / negative sentiment category over the course of e.g. a month
- Number of new leads generated each month via PR for sales to work on
- Customer satisfaction – measured continuously via polls and surveys, NPS etc.
What all of these KPIs have in common is that they are relative. They go up or down – but they never ‘finish’. Each time you do a status check, you update the numbers and verify that they are in between a certain desired minimum and maximum number.
If you are below the desired minimum for your KPI, your organisation is not performing well. If you are above the desired maximum, you are performing ‘too well’ – which means you can take your foot of the gas and spend some of your resources in a better way on other activities.
Telling objectives and KPIs apart
Sadly, it is a very common mistake among professional communicators to confuse objectives with KPIs and vice versa – using the terms interchangeably when they are not.
To anyone who knows and understands the difference, it makes you look uneducated at best. At worst, it causes widespread confusion and possibly mistakes.
Remembering how to tell the difference is actually very simple if you use this visual reminder:
An objective can be visualised as a finish line. You can look at a stated objective and ask yourself: ‘Did we accomplish that?’
- Did we get 5,000 new subscribers for our YouTube channel?
- Did we land an interview with our CEO on national news television?
- Did our survey show that we increased our target audience’s trust in our organisation or product by at least 30 percent?
These are ‘yes or no’ questions, just like crossing the finish line. Because you know what success looks like, you know if and when you have achieved your objective.
KPIs can be visualised with a speed indicator or a thermometer – really, anything with a scale on it and a preferred state of affairs between a minimum indicator and a maximum indicator. You ask yourself: ‘How are we doing?’
- Do our ongoing polls indicate a trust level in our target audience between 67 and 83 percent?
- Does at least 1/3 of our media coverage feature one or more of our brand messages?
- Does at least 75 percent of our stakeholders rate our corporate reputation as ‘favourable’ or ‘very favourable’?
If these questions indicate a state of affairs, not a one-time ‘over and done with’, it is a clear sign that you are dealing with a Key Performance Indicator, not an objective.
And that is really all there is to understanding the difference between goals, objectives and KPIs and why you should never, ever use them interchangeably.
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