Vanity Metrics: Discover What They Are and Why to Avoid Them

Vanity Metrics: Discover What They Are and Why to Avoid Them

Using vanity metrics to measure the performance of content campaigns on social media is perhaps one of the simplest things to do in marketing, but also one of the most challenging

It’s simple because vanity metrics are easy to obtain in large numbers – all platforms provide them. However, it’s difficult because, often, these indicators are ambiguous and insufficient to point out a return on investment (ROI), for example.

In this context, many marketing professionals struggle to uncover the true value of vanity metrics in a company’s social media.

Practically, such indicators look great on paper. But the luster of these numbers fades when you use them to explain significant business outcomes, like ROI or customer lifetime value (CLTV). Vanity metrics become empty digits that contribute little substance to prove that your marketing is making money.

What Are Vanity Metrics?

Vanity metrics are statistics that look spectacular on the surface but don’t necessarily translate into significant business outcomes. Examples include the number of social media followers or the number of views on a promotional video.

Superficially, the data seems impressive, yet these metrics don’t accurately reflect the main drivers of an organization (e.g., active users, engagement, the cost of acquiring new customers, etc.).

Moreover, vanity metrics in social media provide little insight into how a product or initiative relates to other business goals.

How to Identify Vanity Metrics?

Without proper context, it’s easy to fall into the vanity metric trap, especially because these indicators make you feel good, although they are not necessarily important for the success of your product. That’s why Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, calls them dangerous.

Some signs can confirm you’re measuring a vanity metric:

  • Lacks substance;
  • Is extremely simplistic to measure;
  • Skips nuances and context;
  • Often is misleading;
  • Doesn’t help you improve your product or business in a meaningful way.

Context is key. Without it, there’s little real value to the metric. Metrics that can easily fall into this category include:

  • Gross page views;
  • Total running customers;
  • Running totals of purchases or downloads;
  • Social media followers;
  • Number of new users gained per day;
  • Registered users.

Vanity Metrics Don’t Reveal Marketing Strategy Outcomes

The truth is, this type of metric doesn’t come close to indicators like ROI or customer lifetime value. For example, the number of “likes” obtained on a Facebook post rarely correlates with the number of products sold on a store shelf. Depending on the situation, there’s no correlation at all.

In fact, it’s possible to make more sales from a post with just one “like” than from a post with 10,000 “likes”. The number of engagements is generally irrelevant to the number of sales. There’s no clear correlation or causality between the metric and the goal.

The big problem in using this type of indicator lies in the practice of counting vanity metrics as evidence of success when, in reality, it’s not the case.

Vanity Metrics vs. Actionable Metrics

To classify a metric as vanity or actionable, the organization needs to be clear about its unique business goals.

Vanity metrics are metrics that make you look good to others but don’t help you understand your performance clearly, nor guide future strategy setting.

It’s a fact that tracking and analyzing these metrics is exciting, especially if you want to get the feeling that you’re improving. However, usually, vanity metrics on social media are not actionable and are not related to anything you can control or replicate in a meaningful way.

A vanity metric is superficial, poorly understood, and generally results in a team buzzing with results, instead of digging into data for guidance on how to improve marketing strategy and the quality of the experience and product. Unwittingly, this type of measurement can seduce organizations, leading them off course and making it difficult to achieve truly significant outcomes.

An actionable metric provides a different perspective of analysis. It’s a clearly defined measure that offers valuable insights related to business objectives.

These data help teams make informed decisions about the direction of a product or organization.

As a caution, vanity metrics like impressions, “likes,” and traffic are not useless, quite the opposite.

The value of a vanity metric is in measuring non-transactional marketing goals, such as brand recognition, sentiment, and share of voice.

Moreover, vanity metrics point out how to optimize campaigns and solve marketing problems.

Problem with Custom Metrics Reports

But why do so many digital marketing professionals use vanity metrics on social media as indicators of business success?

The truth is that these clicks, views, and ‘likes’ exist because they are easy but not relevant. Vanity metrics are typically free or easy to obtain. Meanwhile, other valuable metrics like ROI or CLTV require time, qualification, and testing to construct.

In driving marketing strategy, many professionals opt for this easy route with vanity metrics because they are under pressure to show immediate success to superiors.

Jill Avery, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and co-author of HBR’s Go To Market tools, explains: “CFOs are under tremendous pressure to generate quarterly gains and may not have the patience for the long-term effects of marketing to occur. You’re asking them to believe in advancing a customer’s journey progression, and that can take a long time.”

In summary, the truth is that many marketing professionals use vanity metrics because they are easy to obtain and help show others in the organization that marketing provides immediate value. In other words, it’s a quick and cheap report, but not very honest.

It’s worth noting that while marketing expenditures have an immediate impact on demonstrating profit and loss, the money invested today is building the brand as an asset for the future.

Therefore, it’s important for company managers to understand that marketing efforts not only drive short-term sales and profits but also strengthen brand value and customer relationships over time.

For long-term results, the best path is to invest in producing effective and relevant content, as well as evaluating vanity metrics over time.

Optimization Metrics, Not Vanity Metrics

As we’ve seen so far, the term “vanity metric” has unfairly gained negative connotations, making it easier for marketing professionals to dismiss its value. The term “optimization metrics” helps to understand its value. The goal of a vanity/optimization metric is exactly that: to help optimize your content for your target audience on a specific channel.

When reporting the number of impressions, clicks, or shares your content receives, it’s ideal not to tie the numbers to ROI. Instead, you should use vanity metrics on social media to better understand your audience on each platform. Especially because the same metrics (‘likes,’ comments, and shares) have different meanings depending on the channel.

For example, a 2017 study by Business Insider revealed that people feel more secure commenting on LinkedIn than on other channels. A likely explanation is that unlike YouTube or Facebook, LinkedIn includes a person’s professional profile (name, workplace, education), and therefore people are more respectful and constructive when providing feedback. It’s harder to be a troll when people know where you work. Whereas on YouTube, an individual can create an anonymous account and track comments.

As a marketing professional, you may judge the vanity metric of comments on LinkedIn as more valuable for your brand sentiment and marketing efforts than those received on YouTube.

In Practice: How to Use Vanity Metrics to Improve Content?

Let’s say you’re managing a paid campaign on Facebook with low performance regarding traffic (marketing objective) and sales (business objective).

How can you use vanity metrics to address this issue?

You know that the campaign is receiving a below-average click-through rate based on:

  • The number of people reached by the post (impressions);
  • The number of engagements made since the post (clicks).

First, assess the impressions because if you’re not reaching the right audience, they won’t be able to click. You assume you’re reaching the right audience, but not enough of them. Now, use this insight to increase your spending on Facebook and gain more visibility.

On the other hand, if impressions are abnormally high but people aren’t clicking on the content, you may assume that you’re impacting the wrong audience or your content isn’t appealing.

Exercises like this show how vanity metrics can be valuable for your marketing efforts. This way, you can improve your content on the channel and over time, achieve greater engagement and success for your marketing objectives.

Using Vanity Metrics the Right Way

Overall, vanity metrics can be used to measure many things, but they are most valuable when used to test and improve how your target audience is reacting to your content on different channels.

Use vanity metrics to better assess your marketing goals, such as brand sentiment or awareness on a specific channel.

For business objectives like ROI, vanity metrics should take a back seat to metrics that build the narrative of customer lifetime value (conversions, subscriptions, MQLs, SQLs, etc.). But this isn’t a quick win.

Using and managing some indicators requires hard work. Customer Lifetime Value (CLTV), for example, requires time, A/B testing, content volumes, and conversions to build an accurate brand image. Don’t look for a quick win with vanity metrics: it’s not there.

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