The SMART Approach to Goal Setting: Does it Work?

“Everything that happens is a small part of our journey. We can choose to be passive or we can be proactive and overcome our fears, set our own goals and do the best to reach them. For better or for worse, we always have a choice.”

– Giorgio Pautrie

If you’re leading product development teams, work output is likely to be a key consideration for you. As project manager, you’re responsible for ensuring that deliverables are met and that everybody is organized. To achieve this, it’s important to have the right productivity tools for your business but also that you’re a motivating manager. Setting targets is a proven way of keeping a multi-disciplined team working towards a common goal and popular methodology for this is SMART goals.

It seems that everyone these days is implementing SMART goals. They help to encourage you and your team, and guide your company’s long-term vision. And because SMART goals conform to predetermined criteria, and are measurable, they create transparency and accountability.

SMART goals help you organize your time and resources and, as you reach each one, you will feel a sense of accomplishment. Measuring your progress also helps you evaluate the efficacy of each goal, and make adjustments along the way.

Ultimately, implementing this strategy will help you keep costs low and make more money in the long term.

SMART goal-setting follows a simple formula; each goal must be:

S = Specific (or significant)

M = Measurable (or meaningful)

A = Attainable (or action oriented)

R = Realistic(or rewarding) and

T = Time Based (traceable)

If you’re starting on a new brief or project, start by identifying your long-term goals. Then, break these down into smaller steps or targets that, once achieved, put you closer to achieving your overall objectives. For each goal you write, ask yourself questions like: what do I want to achieve, how much, for whom, for what purpose, and with what constraints. Here are some tips on how to set your SMART goals:


When Stating Each Goal, Be Precise & Use Positive Statements

“Create valuable content that is useful to my audience based on the following needs and interests…” is better than “Don’t publish subpar content.”

Use dates and base each goal on a KPI (key performance indicator), for example, “increase traffic to my website via Facebook by 10% in three months” is better than “increase Facebook engagement and website visitors.”


Give Each Goal A Priority Status

When you are dealing with multiple goals, be sure to indicate which take priority. This will keep you from feeling overwhelmed and help you focus your attention on higher-priority objectives. It also helps team members understand the bigger picture. This is especially important if one person can’t start a dependent task until someone else has complete their own.


Make Each Goal Small & Incremental With Milestones

Lofty goals are difficult to achieve in short spurts and can leave you feeling as if you haven’t accomplished anything. Be sure each goal is part of a larger objective, but small enough to complete before moving forward. Break down larger goals into smaller tasks. As you achieve milestones based on specific dates, you will feel more in control and that you are making progress.


Be Specific

Specific goals are focused and well defined. If you set out to “increase revenues by 15% through B2B partnerships in six months” you will come much closer to your target than if you work towards “increasing revenues in 2016.”

Being specific forces you to hammer out the strategy needed to achieve a particular goal. How will you reach out to potential partners, and with what message? What is the current industry landscape, and what is the six-month forecast?


Be Sure Each Goal Is Relevant

Again, your business climate will help you determine if a particular goal is relevant. If a recession is looming or two new competitors are quickly gaining traction in your market, then a goal to increase revenues by 50% may not be possible in the short-term. You may want to focus instead on nurturing relationships with your current clients and attracting new ones, perhaps by redefining your branding or ramping up your marketing efforts with case studies and testimonials.


Don’t Over Reach

Resist the temptation to set goals that aren’t attainable. It’s okay to dream big, but your goal-setting protocols should be based firmly in reality. Investors often overlook companies whose business plans are filled with outlandish goals. Set realistic goals by researching your industry’s growth potential and your own resources. This will also help to keep the team motivated and not feeling like you’re burning them out for the sake of your own glory.


Example SMART Goals

  • Achieve 300 website referrals and 30 leads via LinkedIn by August 1, 2016.
  • Grow social media interactions by 500 in the third quarter of 2016.
  • Increase referral sales by five for a total of $300,000 in revenues in one year.
  • Reduce bounce rates by five percent in the fourth quarter of 2016.
  • Increase newsletter subscribers by 100 in six months.

SMART goals can make a huge difference in your company’s growth. Attach an inspirational quote to each goal to drive momentum and keep your team motivated.

And check out this free template by HubSpot for implementing SMART marketing goals.

There are also a few variations to SMART, like SMARTER, which forces you to evaluate and adjust your approach, and SMARTEST, which is meant to significantly improve the quality of your goal setting and increase the likelihood of your success.

But is SMART goal-setting really the best technique? Despite the popularity of SMART, some commentators aren’t convinced of the value of every metric. For example, Forbes contributor Mark Murphy says the achievable and realistic parts of SMART goal setting may be an impediment to realizing goals, “and actually encourage mediocre and poor performance.”

Still, few will argue that it’s just plain smart to write down your goals, and the steps you’ll need to achieve each one (as long as you look back at your progress and adjust course when necessary).

Further Reading

For more information on formulating SMART goals, see this post from Syracuse University that provides definitions of each element of SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound, as well as examples of how each should be written.

HubSpot Academy also provides a comprehensive guide to formulating SMART objectives, which is particularly helpful for marketers who use the platform: “Typically, marketers might have goals for Visits, Contacts, and Customers for the year, quarter, or month and the numbers are closely related to each other. We’ve found that focusing on one of these specific segments gives the clearest vision of success.”

The UK’s Project Smart offers variations on the SMART theme and a template for creating SMARTER goals.

If you’re a blogger, check out this post by called 5 SMART Blogging Goals to Set in 2016, which helps you set actionable goals for both your personal or business blog.

Similarly, says you can “grow your blog strategically with SMART goal-setting.” Once you define a goal, this post suggests:

Begin by breaking down your goal into objectives. What steps do you need to take for your goal to become reality?

If your goal is to earn $1,000 in your first year of blogging, you can start by making a list of ways to earn money (you can get ideas from our post on 23 Clever Ways to Monetize Your Blog).

Break down your goal into monthly steps. If you’ve decided to try to land sponsored posts, your list might look like this:

  1. Redesign blog and clean up sidebar clutter by the end of February 1st
  2. Start an email list by March 1st
  3. Create a media kit by April 1st
  4. Compile of list of brands I’d like to work with by May 1st
  5. Starting in May, reach out to 5 brands per week

In contrast, speaks directly to PPC professionals, suggesting SMART goals for AdWords is “not a smart move for advertisers.”

And goes so far as to suggest, “Goal setting may be counter productive if not a waste of time.” For examples of goal setting gone wrong, see their post here. It offers advice from psychologists and Harvard Business School faculty who believe there are better alternatives to goal setting, particularly by “focusing on small wins in combination with process improvement [to] drive your organization forward without the negative consequences of stretch goals.”

In addition, author Ray Williams offers advice to those who must set goals and explains the psychological manifestations that occur when goals are not achieved. Worth a read!

Do you currently use SMART goals? If so, which ones have been successful and what tips can you recommend? If not, what limitations do you believe are inherent in the SMART approach to goal setting? Have you found more value from another technique? Let us know in the comments!


About the Author: Gareth Simpson is a marketing manager based in the UK. During his time working for digital agencies, he has learned that inspiring and motivating digital teams is key to success. You can learn more about Gareth on Twitter.