I mean that in both senses of the word. I am a huge fan of smart metrics, but I despair for the effects of setting the wrong numerical targets. And it’s all too common.

Total email list size is my current bête noir. It’s a bad metric. Here’s why.

You decide that your email list size is going to be X. You tell your CEO. She puts it in her Board report. All of a sudden it’s “out there” among the powers that be. You’re stuck with it.

Now what?

Now you can’t clean out your deliverable dead – the probably one third or more of your list who have mentally unsubscribed. They don’t open, click or do anything but screw up all your other engagement metrics and run up your ESP costs. But you can’t clean them out or you’d have to report a huge drop in overall list size.

And you are going to buy names. You might buy a lot of them. Is that a bad idea? Inherently no, but if you’re shooting for an undifferentiated total, you’re paying way less attention to quality and a whole lot more to price. The future deliverable dead.

You’re ignoring your most passionate constituents – the twenty percent or so who are most committed to your cause and your organization. Why? You’re too busy goosing up that strategically pointless grand total.

You’re also not taking any real risks, the kind of sharp-edged tactics that will thrill your inner tribe but might alienate the strap-hangers. All good brands polarize to some degree, but you can’t afford to lose a soul.

It’s also a gateway drug to even sillier targets, like building your posse of Facebook Likers. You’re not gonna be taking that one to the bank any time soon.

This is not fantasy; I have seen this exact scenario play out many many times with big national organizations. It’s a common trap.

I am guessing my fellow consultants and I have contributed to the problem by stressing the urgent importance of list building. I think we pushed it too far. We need a new set of metrics that gauges the quality and depth of engagement and puts them at least on a par with quantity. Metrics like Net Promoter are a step in the right direction, but we need more.

Big list size? Big deal.