Data Science

Vanity vs meaningful marketing metrics

Post by
Steve Bambury

Likes. Shares. Comments. Followers. Open Rates. Views. Traffic. Time on Site. All of these are powerful tools a business owner can – and should – use to measure return on investment (ROI) of marketing dollars. Right?

Not necessarily.

These ‘vanity’ metrics on the surface appear to be a good way to measure the success of a campaign, a product, or a funnel. They’re also easy (and cheap) to lay your hands on – if you want to see how many likes an article got on Facebook, all you need to do is look at your page insights.

They’re also easy to test and influence. For example, you can change one image for another and test a Facebook at to improve interactions. Likes and followers increase week on week just by adding fresh content. We see things improving and we pat ourselves on the backs.

Vanity metrics look good, and they make us feel good. But is there a better way to measure performance?

What are vanity metrics?

A vanity metric is a data-point (something your measuring) that doesn’t provide value to your business. This is usually because the metric doesn’t show the true impact or provide a deep insight that can help drive change.

For example, 5,000 people liking your social media page might look good, but if none of those people are genuine customers, is this a worthwhile metric to measure and focus on? Many people follow social media profiles of businesses they never intend to purchase from. You may have a disconnect between your social media presence and your customer avatar – but you won’t know this until you get deeper insight.

Vanity metrics tell a story about your business. But if you want to improve performance, you need to start reading a different type of story.

Why marketers love vanity metrics

The truth is, even in this age of data-driven content and micro-targeting, marketing is hard work.It’s a lot of trying new campaigns and experimenting with different audiences and making tiny changes and tweaks to get things working better.

Dollars spent today build the brand for the future, but they don’t necessarily equate to new customers in the database tomorrow. So much of marketing is about nurturing leads into customers or trying to build repeat business, but those numbers just don’t look as sexy in a presentation as a lovely sloping upward curve of social shares or page views.

Vanity metrics like newsletter subscribers and social media likes reflect the effort your marketing team is putting in, but they can’t show the impact the team has on the bottom line.

Marketers love to talk about vanity metrics because they grow quickly (and often easily), and they’re quick and free to obtain. If you want to see your instagram followers all you have to do is look at your profile. You don’t have to wrestle with a spreadsheet or dive into a CMS system.You can see growth happening in front of your eyes, and as we’ve already established – grow this sexy.

An example of how vanity metrics can steer your business wrong

You decide to run an influencer campaign, where you give free product and pay for placement with top-ranked instagrammers to promote your newest launch. From a shortlist of fifty potential influencers, you identify ten with the highest number of followers and engagement levels, assuming they’ll result in the biggest reach and conversions for your campaign.

On the day the campaign goes live, you notice that while the posts get lots of likes and comments, hardly anyone clicks on your tracking links. Why? Just because people like a picture their favorite instagrammer posts, doesn’t mean they’re your target customer or that they’re ready to buy.

Instead, you could have focused on more meaningful metrics, such as the CTR or average sales volume of previous campaigns run by the influencers. Sometimes, a smaller account with a fraction of the followers will give you a much better result.

Turning vanity metrics into meaningful metrics

Businesses who focus on vanity metrics at the expense of meaningful data can find they win the social media/website traffic race against their competitors, but fall behind in revenue and marketshare.

Instead, you’ll have to dig deeper, and invest more energy into meaningful data that propels change. Let’s look at some examples:

  • Instead of total website traffic, which will rise and fall at the whim of Google and your advertising budget and tells you nothing about conversions or revenue, focus on engagement metrics like visitor frequency (how often a person visits your website) or visitor recency (when they were last on your site).
  • Instead of ‘new leads’, which is a number that can get very high but is really just people who’ve given you their email address (often without realising it), focus on qualified leads– people who’ve specifically indicated they’re interested in the thing you do.
  • Instead of social media likes, follows, and impressions, which can be cool but can simply mean people like your content, not your product, focus on conversions generated by social media.

If vanity metrics have no value, why do we bother with them at all?

Vanity metrics do have value – absolutely. They just won’t help you understand ROI or provide data that will help you grow revenue. A “like” on Facebook cannot be measured as impacting a sale on your website – the two things are just too far removed from each other.

Instead, vanity metrics help you understand your customer. They enable you to see the type of content your customers enjoy, the channels they engage with, and the type of language and imagery they respond to.

Remember – likes don’t equal customers, and that growing vanity metrics won’t improve your bottom line. Data isn’t there to make you look good – it’s got to help you acquire and retain customers or grow revenue – or what’s the point?

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