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You’ve probably been here before — you’re putting all your time and energy into making sure one of your main metrics is nice and healthy only to see it plummet with no clear sign as to why it happened.

The answer? You’re probably neglecting your counter metrics.

In today’s primer, we’ll delve deep into what these metrics are and why they matter so much to make sure your business stays healthy while growing and expanding. 

We’ll cover:

  • What are counter metrics?

  • Why are they so important?

  • How do counter metrics work

  • Examples of counter metrics in various contexts

  • How to select effective counter metrics

  • Frequently asked questions

Let’s dive in.

What are counter metrics?

Imagine your team is working towards a clearly defined North Star metric — the single metric that best captures the core value your product delivers to customers. It might be something like increasing sign-ups, active daily users, or landing more big contracts. 

Seeing those numbers climb is a positive sign, but it's not the whole story.

Counter metrics act as a critical safeguard. They are metrics that keep tabs on other important areas while you're chasing your North Star metrics. 

For instance, if your North Star goal is more sign-ups, a counter metric might track churn rates (how many people leave). This guarantees you're not just bringing people in the front door while they quickly exit out the back. 

In other words, counter metrics are a way of saying, "Let's make sure we're focused on the right kind of growth." They help ensure you're optimizing for success that matters in the long run.

The importance of counter metrics

It's tempting to become fixated on a single metric, especially one showing positive trends. Yet, a narrow focus can have unintended, sometimes damaging, consequences. Here's where counter metrics become indispensable:

  • They shed light on hidden issues: For example, maybe you focus on increasing new signups and redesigning your entire landing page for maximum conversions. However, these changes might complicate the signup process, leading to user frustration. A counter metric like average signup completion time would highlight this tradeoff.

  • They protect core business functions: Actions taken to improve your primary metric might inadvertently strain other critical areas. Attracting lots of new customers is fantastic, but if you sacrifice customer support in the process, those customers won’t be loyal for long.

  • They enable balanced, sustainable growth: Ignoring other vital metrics can lead to short-term gains at the expense of the long-term health of your product or company. counter metrics help you achieve the kind of success that endures.

How do you select counter metrics?

So, we’ve explained the importance of counter metrics but how do you actually put them into practice? Here's a breakdown:

#1 Pinpoint the potential risks

Start with your North Star metric and ask yourself:

"If I focus intently on improving this, what could potentially go wrong in other areas of my product or business?" 

Let’s look at an example scenario to see why you should be asking yourself that question:

  • North Star metric: Increase in daily active users.

  • Potential risk: Suppose you achieve this increase by aggressively adding new features. While this might attract more users initially, if the features are buggy, poorly integrated, or simply not useful, they'll harm the overall user experience.

  • Consequence: A focus solely on the North Star Metric can lead to a bloated product, frustrated users, and eventually declining retention — even if daily active user counts temporarily rise.

Identifying potential risks can be difficult, so here are some more questions to guide you:

  • Customer experience: Could chasing the North Star metric make the product harder to use, less helpful, or introduce annoying elements?

  • Retention: Will attracting a certain type of user (to boost the metric) make the product less appealing to your core, loyal customer base?

  • Resource strain: Might pursuing the North Star lead to neglecting other aspects like customer support or vital product maintenance?

#2 Finding the metrics that matter

The issues you identified now become the basis for your counter metrics. Think about what you can track to monitor whether those risks are actually happening. Remember, good counter metrics are:

  • Derived from your business: Counter metrics shouldn't be generic criteria. They need to directly relate to the potential downsides you uncovered in step #1, which are specific to your product and business model.

  • Measurable:  If you can't reliably track a metric, it can't be a useful counter metric. Make sure the data is accessible and consistent.

  • Actionable: A counter metric should provide clear signals about what you may need to change. If a metric triggers alarm bells, but you're unsure what to do differently, it's not the right counter metric.

Extra tip: Don't be tempted by vanity metrics. Metrics like "total registered accounts" might look impressive, but they won't reveal actual business impact if, for example, you have a freemium product model where registered accounts don’t always translate to revenue. 

Instead, look at your paid customer retention rate, as it would directly measure whether new signups are translating into long-term, engaged users.

#3 Balancing the insights

Counter metrics are warning flags, not the be-all-and-end-all. Here's how to use them wisely:

  • Context is key: A dip in a counter metric doesn't necessarily mean you're failing. Maybe it's a temporary side-effect of a positive experiment. Weigh the changes against your overall strategic goals.

  • Establish thresholds: Decide what level of change in a counter metric warrants closer investigation and potential action. This prevents overreacting to minor fluctuations. This is also what statistical inference, like calculating statistical significance, is useful for.

  • Iterate: As your product and understanding of your users evolve, don't be afraid to change or add counter metrics to keep them relevant.

Examples of counter metrics in action

Understanding counter metrics in theory is one thing, but seeing them in action makes the concept truly click. Let's explore some examples across different business areas:

Example 1: Business and marketing

  • Primary metric: Increase in website traffic.

  • Counter metric: Bounce rate and user engagement time.

It's fantastic to attract more visitors, but if they leave immediately (high bounce rate) or spend very little time exploring your site (low engagement time), then the increased traffic isn't truly valuable. 

These counter metrics help you make sure that additional traffic translates into meaningful interest.

Example 2: Product development

  • Primary metric: Number of new features released.

  • Counter metric: Customer satisfaction and bug reports.

Launching new features at a rapid pace can seem impressive, but not if those features are buggy or if customers find them confusing or irrelevant. 

Tracking customer satisfaction scores and bug reports helps confirm that the push for newness doesn't sacrifice quality or user experience.

Example 3: Employee performance

  • Primary metric: Sales numbers.

  • Counter metric: Customer retention and satisfaction scores.

While sales volume is important, so is the long-term health of customer relationships. Aggressive sales tactics might lead to short-term wins, but if customers feel pressured or misled, this could damage retention. 

Pairing this primary metric with those focused on customer happiness creates a more balanced picture of an employee's true value.

Remember: These are just starting points. The best counter metrics depend heavily on your specific business model and goals. The key is to think critically about the potential downsides of focusing solely on your North Star metrics, and then find ways to measure those areas.

Tips to keep in mind when selecting counter metrics

You've put in the work to brainstorm potential counter metrics, but now it's time to be discerning.  Before you commit to tracking a new metric, ask yourself:

  • Is it truly critical? Counter metrics should protect the core of your business. Ask yourself, "If this metric dropped significantly, would it have a major negative impact even if my North Star Metric is improving?" If the answer isn't a clear “yes,” reconsider the metric.

  • Can I measure it reliably? Inconsistent data or metrics that are difficult to calculate erode trust in your counter metrics. Prioritize metrics where you're confident in the data quality and can obtain updates regularly.

  • Does it guide action? Counter metrics aren't for passive tracking; they prompt action. If a metric changes, does it clearly suggest next steps, areas to investigate, or potential strategy shifts? If not, don’t consider it. 

The dangers of misleading counter metrics

Choosing the wrong counter metrics can do more harm than good. Here are some pitfalls to avoid:

  • False alarms: If your counter metric is prone to fluctuations that don't truly reflect business health, you might overreact or waste time chasing changes that ultimately don't affect your retention or revenue margins.

  • Contradictory signals: Sometimes, the actions needed to improve a counter metric might clash with actions to improve your primary metric. It's a balancing act, but choose counter metrics that generally align with your business priorities.

  • Missed opportunities: If a counter metric isn't sensitive enough, it might not reveal problems until the damage is already done. Choosing a metric that acts as a true 'early warning' system is crucial.

Pro tip: Don't think of counter metrics as a set-it-and-forget-it exercise. As your business and product evolve, you might need to adjust your counter metrics to ensure they remain relevant and insightful.

Frequently asked questions

What is a counter KPI?

A counter KPI (or counter metric) is a metric that you track alongside your North Star metric. Its purpose is to ensure you don't over-optimize for your primary goal in a way that damages other important areas of your business.

What is the difference between counter and gauge metrics?

Counter metrics and gauge metrics are both synonyms for the same concept. They're called "counter" because they counterbalance the focus on a North Star metric, and "gauge" because they measure the health of other important business areas.

What are guardrail metrics?

Guardrail metrics are another term for counter metrics. The idea is that they act as guardrails, preventing you from going too far in pursuit of your North Star metric and causing unintended harm to the overall health of your product or business.

What is the difference between counter metrics and North Star metrics?

North Star metrics measure your primary definition of success, while counter metrics prevent unintended negative consequences as you chase that primary goal.

Next steps

After diving into our guide, you've gained valuable insights into the role counter metrics play in protecting your strategic objectives. However, knowing which metrics to monitor and how to leverage them is key.

That's where Eppo can help.

Eppo is a powerful experimentation and feature management platform designed to help companies delve into the factors that influence their key business metrics.

 With Eppo, you can:

  • Go beyond superficial metrics: Eppo helps you monitor not just the North Star metric, but also the critical counter metrics that protect your overall business health. Track changes in customer satisfaction, churn rates, or resource usage alongside your primary growth metric.

  • Uncover hidden issues: Eppo's diagnostic tools flag potential problems that might be hidden under positive North Star metric trends. See if an increase in signups, for example, is leading to strained customer support or a dip in product usability.

  • Test with confidence: Before launching changes aimed at boosting your North Star metric, use Eppo to A/B test variations. Measure the true impact on your counter metrics, ensuring any gains don't come at the expense of long-term sustainability.

  • Maintain holistic health: Eppo's focus on the full experimentation lifecycle means you can design experiments with your counter metrics in mind from the start. This promotes balanced growth and safeguards against unintended consequences.

  • The Eppo difference: By revealing the complex interplay between your North Star metric and essential counter metrics, Eppo allows you to make strategic decisions that actually impact real business metrics like your revenue and retention numbers. 

Book a Demo and Explore Eppo.

Learn what counter metrics are, why they matter, and how to use them effectively. Optimize success without sacrificing long-term health.

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