Not a performance tracker.
Benchmarks are reportedly the best results for a specific industry sector. In a marketing context, benchmark data focus on the best performance of activities such as conversion rate, traffic volume, lead cost, channel segmentation, etc. Digital marketers sometimes include in their reports the relative performance of a campaign versus benchmark data.
To see why this is meaningless, let's put things in another context. Let's say Sally wants to lose weight. She's been searching for a benchmark and found out that some adult women can weight less than 5 stones and still be healthy. She decides that this will be her sanity check and keeps track of her weight loss against her benchmark data.
We laugh at this scenario for two main reasons: firstly Sally didn't take into consideration her own potential, and secondly she should have measured her progress against herself. Yet hundreds of marketers reproduce Sally's mistakes everyday. Benchmark data are not an average indication of performance.
Not an objective.
We know what you're thinking right now. If benchmark data are the best of an industry therefore meeting them means you are among the best. That's not so easy. Benchmark data focus on one specific metric, such as for example the channel segmentation of a website. It is still very unlikely that there is a correlation between the result of an isolated activity and the success of a company. To put it simply, you may find that your industry benchmark shows 20% of traffic is created by social media. However there is no indication that changing your marketing campaigns to generate 20% of traffic via your social networks will lead to an increase in leads or revenue.
Your objectives need to be defined by the analysis of your situation to be meaningful to your company only.
This might be a shock for the late bloomers in digital marketing who have discovered the comforting feeling of reliable and trackable results: Benchmark data are unreliable. They only show one very limited and entirely campaign-driven side of marketing results. Yet there is more to it. If we go back to the example of social media generating 20% of traffic, it is very unlikely that this metric will also mention the size of the social media team, the content marketing plan, the converting landing pages, the cost of skills and tools, the internal company policy that trusts the social media team to respond to social threads outside of their working hours, the agreed social media guidelines, the overall brand sentiment in social networks, the mobile-friendly UX, etc.
In short benchmark data should always be taken with a grain of salt.