How To Stop Relying on Vanity Metrics in Digital Marketing
Have you ever seen a statistic or metric on an advertisement and thought to yourself, “There’s no way that’s real”?
Or maybe, more importantly—“Who cares?”
From claims of being 99% natural (What defines “natural”? How do you calculate that? ) to having over 1,000,000 customers served, metrics are used everywhere to help convince customers, stakeholders, and even your internal team that your business is all it’s cracked up to be.
But, not all metrics are created equal—some, called “vanity metrics,” are criticized by marketers and business owners worldwide for their uselessness and ego-boosting quality.
But what defines a vanity metric, and how do you know if you’re relying on them? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about vanity metrics in digital marketing—especially for your agency, including:
- What a vanity metric is (and what it’s not).
- 5 examples of vanity metrics vs. 5 examples of more useful actionable metrics.
- How to tell whether you’re using vanity metrics.
Let’s get started.
Vanity Metrics in Digital Marketing: So What Is a Vanity Metric Anyway?
In the simplest terms possible, a vanity metric is a measurement that looks good on paper but doesn’t necessarily reflect the true health or growth of a business.
They also don’t do much to provide value to your customers, stakeholders, or anyone else the metric may be directed toward.
In digital marketing, vanity metrics are often used to measure success but don’t provide valuable insights that can inform business decisions. They may paint a picture of success and triumph, especially when taken out of context, but when they get factored into your business’s performance as a whole, the facts just don’t quite seem to add up.
Think about a social media post that gets 1 million views but only 2,000 likes. Or, better yet, a social media post that gets 1 million views but only translates to about 10 conversions.
On paper, 1 million views looks great. It looks better than great—it’s phenomenal performance, and it essentially means that your post went viral. If you were to cite just this statistic alone during a board meeting, everyone in the meeting would surely be impressed by your social media marketing skills.
But it only shows one side of the story, and it leaves out the most important facts. If you examine the post more closely, you may see that it only got a million views because it said something controversial or wrong, and all the comments are upset and talking about how they don’t like the post.
Or maybe, it got a million views—but only because a bunch of bots saw it and falsely inflated the view count. Other potential mishaps in this example include:
- The views were real, but they were from the wrong audience, so no one converted.
- The views and likes came from the right audience, but the post simply wasn’t strong enough to influence them to visit your website or buy your product.
- The views and likes were real, but it was on a platform where views and likes are easy to get and don’t necessarily translate to follows or conversions. This seems to be a big problem on Tiktok especially.
As you can see, the possibilities in this scenario are endless, but they all end in the same result: you didn’t make your targeted conversions or sales. And, if that was the end goal, who really cares what else happened?
The Dangers of Vanity Metrics
Vanity metrics can be dangerous for business owners and agency owners because they give a false sense of accomplishment. They may look impressive, but they don’t provide meaningful insights that can inform business decisions.
Although vanity metrics can seem beneficial to include in a presentation or a homepage, they should not be the driving force behind any marketing strategy. They don’t reflect the true value of your marketing efforts, and if you rely on them too heavily, you may make decisions that put your business at risk.
This is because vanity metrics don’t reflect the reality of where your business stands, what your issues are, what your customers want, and a variety of other real concerns. When you build strategy based on this data, it’s like building a house on quicksand.
Additionally, vanity metrics in digital marketing can:
- Hinder informed decision-making. By relying on vanity metrics, business owners and agency owners may make decisions that don’t drive growth or achieve their goals.
- Lack meaningful insights. Vanity metrics don’t provide valuable insights into the performance of a business and can’t be used to inform business decisions.
- Be easily manipulated. Vanity metrics can be easily manipulated, such as the number of social media followers, which can be artificially inflated. In some cases, vanity metrics are completely made up.
- Fail to reflect the customer experience. Vanity metrics that go out of their way to ignore key aspects of the customer experience will fail to capture any meaningful data about how your customers feel. This is crucial in determining the success of a business.
- Fail to provide value to stakeholders. Vanity metrics don’t provide value to stakeholders, such as customers and investors, and don’t give them a true understanding of the business’s performance.
Identifying Vanity Metrics in Digital Marketing
One of the trickiest aspects of vanity metrics is that there’s no set definition on what is and isn’t a vanity metric.
They can even vary depending on:
- Your audience
- Your objective
- Your industry and niche
…With a certain metric acting as a vanity metric for one business and a key performance indicator (KPI) for another.
Take a metric about how one of your blog posts was the number one ranking result for a certain keyword on Google.
For an online shoe-selling business that’s failing to make a profit, this means almost nothing. If this was focused on during a meeting instead of more important performance metrics like cart abandonment rates or sales rates, it would certainly be considered a vanity metric.
But, for an SEO agency? Ranking high for a keyword is probably a huge indicator in the efficacy of your overall services.
So how do you tell what’s considered a vanity metric for you and your business? Here are some of the telltale indicators.
Common Characteristics of Vanity Metrics
1. They are easy to measure and track. Vanity metrics are often easy to measure and track, which makes them attractive to marketers and business owners. Think clicks, page views, or likes. However, just because they are easy to measure doesn’t mean they are providing valuable insights into your business’s performance.
2. They often have a direct correlation to effort but not necessarily to impact. Vanity metrics usually show a direct correlation to effort, whether that’s hours put into a project, number of customers served, or the number of social media posts created. But, none of these metrics really illustrate whether any of these efforts were successful—they just illustrate that they got done.
3. They lack actionable data. Although vanity metrics like clicks, likes, or how many people you’ve served seem promising, often, they don’t really tell you much about what your next step should be. If one social media post gets a lot of engagement but sales have flatlined, what does that mean? How does that influence your marketing strategy?
4. They have data, but lack meaningful analysis. Sometimes, even when a metric does have data, it still lacks meaningful analysis. For example, the number of website visits may be collected, but there is no analysis of where the visits are coming from or what pages they are visiting, which is necessary information to drive growth.
5. They suggest disproportionate growth or success compared to your overall performance. The biggest red flag of vanity metrics is that they often suggest disproportionate growth or success compared to a business’s overall performance.
For example, the number of followers on social media may have increased significantly, but the number of conversions may have remained unchanged. This could suggest that the followers are not the right target audience or that the marketing efforts are not translating into sales.
6. They may use misleading data. Misleading data is any piece of data that doesn’t tell the full story, results from biased interpretation of data, or is simply presented in a biased fashion (To learn about how a positive version of this concept works in visualization, check out this article).
You may have seen such data in advertisements or lopsided news outlets. Vanity metrics may use misleading data by shining a light on positive data while ignoring negative data about your business’s performance.
An example of misleading data through a misleading visualization. The first chart makes the difference between interest rates seem much higher than it is.
Examples of Vanity Metrics in Digital Marketing
So what about some concrete examples of typical vanity metrics?
While whether or not these count as vanity metrics will depend on your business model and what your goals are, the following 5 examples are usually vanity metrics, especially when they’re not coupled with any other contextual data.
- Page views. This metric is often used to track the traffic on a website or specific page. It may make businesses feel good to see high page views, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that visitors found what they were looking for, engaged with the content, or became customers.
- Social media followers. Many businesses track the number of followers they have on social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. However, having a large number of followers does not always translate into meaningful engagement or conversions.
- Email subscribers. The number of email subscribers a business has is another common metric used to measure the success of email marketing campaigns. However, if subscribers are not opening or engaging with the emails, the number of subscribers alone does not provide a complete picture of the success of the campaign.
- Impressions. Impressions refer to the number of times an ad has been displayed, but it does not necessarily mean that it was seen or clicked on by a potential customer. Businesses may be thrilled to see high impression numbers, but without other metrics, such as click-through rate or conversion rate, the impression number is relatively meaningless.
- Time spent on a website. This metric is often used to measure engagement on a website, but it can be misleading. If visitors are spending a long time on a website, it may suggest that they are engaged with the content, but it could also mean they are struggling to find what they are looking for or are stuck on a page due to slow load times or other technical issues.
Businesses should be cautious about relying on these vanity metrics and should focus on actionable metrics that provide meaningful insights into customer behavior and business performance.
So What Do You Do Instead? Actionable Metrics
At this point, you may be wondering what the opposite of a vanity metric is—metrics you should actually be using that would count toward your business’s success.
The answer is actionable metrics.
An actionable metric is exactly what it sounds like—it’s a metric that provides useful and meaningful insights into business performance and customer behavior.
Unlike vanity metrics, which are often superficial and don’t offer much value in terms of decision-making, actionable metrics are closely aligned with the goals of a business and provide clear and concise information that can be used to drive growth.
Actionable metrics are typically tied to specific business objectives, such as increasing website traffic, boosting conversion rates, or improving customer retention. These metrics are carefully chosen to ensure that they are both relevant and measurable. They are often used in combination with other metrics to provide a more comprehensive view of business performance.
For example, if a business is looking to increase its website traffic, an actionable metric could be the number of unique visitors per day, with context of what avenues they came from—whether it be organic search, a PPC ad, or a social media post.
This metric provides a clear picture of the business’s online presence and can be used to identify opportunities for improvement since it shows where each user is coming from and can help stakeholders properly analyze which avenues are working and which ones aren’t. From there, they can assess ways to optimize their traffic.
Actionable metrics are valuable because they allow businesses to make informed decisions based on real data.
By focusing on metrics that are truly meaningful to your business goals, you can identify areas of improvement, measure progress, and adjust your strategies accordingly. In this way, actionable metrics provide a clear path to success rather than simply offering a superficial snapshot of performance that may not even matter for your bottom line.
Common Characteristics of Actionable Metrics in Digital Marketing
A few vanity metrics and their more actionable counterparts.
So how do you know when you’re using actionable metrics and not vanity metrics?
There are several key characteristics than separate them. Signs a metric is actionable include:
- They are relevant to your business goals. Actionable metrics are directly tied to your business objectives and are selected based on their ability to measure progress toward those goals—rather than how good they make your business look. Think cart abandonment rates for an ecommerce business or total ROI for a PPC ad rather than impressions or clicks.
- They are specific and measurable. Actionable metrics are well-defined and quantifiable, allowing you to track progress over time and identify trends. Instead of having a long-standing counter of how many people you’ve served during the lifetime of your business, you may instead look at new customers on a monthly or weekly basis and measure that against your marketing efforts in any given month or week.
- They provide real insight into customer behavior. Actionable metrics are designed to help you understand how customers are interacting with your business, allowing you to identify areas where you can improve the customer experience.
Instead of focusing on how people are interacting with your website overall, you may look at how paying customers interact with your website and compare that to the journey of people who don’t convert.
- They are actionable. This one may be obvious, but it should still be mentioned since it’s such an important aspect of actionable metrics. As the name suggests, actionable metrics are designed to help you take action to improve your business performance.
Actionable metrics provide specific insights that you can act on to drive growth and achieve your goals. When you walk away from analyizing an actionable metric, you should have a clear idea of what you need to do next to improve your results.
- They are context-dependent. Actionable metrics are not one size fits all. Instead, they are tailored to your specific business, taking into account your industry, audience, and competitive landscape.
They also tend to be analyzed in conjunction with other metrics that can add useful context. For example, bounce rates may be analyzed alongside acquisition sources and customer segments, rather than being looked at in a vacuum.
- They are harder to measure and track. In life, it’s generally true that more work equals higher rewards, and this is also true for metrics. Just like vanity metrics are easy to measure, actionable metrics may require some more advanced analysis, tools and software, and synthesis to track and use appropriately.
Actionable metrics are best collected and analyzed by an expert who knows there way around deciphering analytic platforms and overall business strategy.
By focusing on these characteristics when choosing your metrics, you can ensure that you are measuring what matters most to your business and that you are able to use that data to drive meaningful growth.
Examples of Actionable Metrics in Digital Marketing
Like vanity metrics, actionable metrics can vary depending on industry, your business goals, and a variety of other factors.
One unique aspect of what makes an actionable metric actionable is whether it’s used correctly. In the right hands, even typical vanity metrics can be transformed into actionable metrics by being contextualized properly or combined with other metrics that build a more holistic picture of performance.
So, if you’re looking for a straight yes-or-no answer about whether the metric you’ve been using is actionable, you probably won’t be able to find one—it depends on how it fits into your goals, how you’re using it, and what you decide to do with the information it gives you.
With that said, here are a few examples of metrics that are generally actionable.
- Conversion rates. As the metric that measures the percentage of visitors to your website that complete a desired action, such as making a purchase or filling out a form, conversion rates are the bread and butter of digital marketing. And for good reason—they have a direct correlation to your business’s success and are pretty hard to misinterpret.
By tracking your conversion rate, you can identify which marketing channels and tactics are the most effective at turning casual web surfers into leads or sales and optimize your campaigns accordingly.
- Customer lifetime value (CLV). This metric calculates the total value a customer will bring to your business over the course of their relationship with you. By tracking CLV, you can identify your most valuable customers and tailor your marketing and sales strategies to better serve their needs, keep them coming back for more, and attract more customers like them.
You can also use CLV to determine how to optimize your budget and even the services and products you offer.
- Return on investment (ROI). If conversion rates are the bread and butter of digital marketing, ROI is the plate—without it, not even the bread and butter is useful. This metric measures the revenue generated by your marketing efforts relative to the amount you spent on those efforts.
By tracking ROI, especially on a per-campaign basis, you can identify which marketing channels and campaigns are most effective at driving revenue for your business and optimize your spending accordingly.
- Click-through rate (CTR). This metric measures the percentage of people who click on a link in your ad or email relative to the number of people who saw it. By tracking CTR, you can identify which messaging and calls to action are most effective at driving engagement with your brand and optimize your campaigns accordingly. This metric is especially useful when compared to conversion rates.
- Customer acquisition cost (CAC). This metric measures how much it costs your business to acquire a new customer. It takes into account all the expenses associated with marketing, advertising, and sales efforts, and divides it by the total number of new customers acquired over a certain period of time.
By tracking CAC, you can determine the effectiveness of your marketing and sales strategies and make adjustments to optimize your customer acquisition process. A lower CAC indicates that your business is acquiring customers at a more efficient rate, which can lead to higher profit margins and a more sustainable business model.
By focusing on these actionable metrics and analyzing them with context and good sense, your business can gain insights into what actually matters about your performance. From there, it will be much easier to take action to optimize your marketing efforts for better results.
6 Tips To Ensure You’re Tracking the Right Metrics
Do you have some metrics you’re currently tracking, and you aren’t quite sure whether they’re vanity or actionable metrics?
Tracking the right metrics is crucial for understanding the performance of your business and for making data-driven decisions that can lead to growth and success. Many businesses will track a variety of metrics, with some being more important than others—so don’t worry too much if vanity metrics are included in this variety.
The issue occurs when you’re relying too much on vanity metrics to tell the story of your business’s success without understanding their limitations. If you’re choosing to look at vanity metrics because they look better or are easier to track, while ignoring more important metrics that may tell a more troubling story that would be more challenging to improve, it’s time to reassess your approach to metrics.
Likewise, if you’re tracking certain metrics just because you’ve heard they’re important, but there’s not that strong of a connection with your unique business goals, you may be focusing on vanity metrics—even if these metrics are usually considered actionable.
Here are some tips to ensure that you’re prioritizing the right metrics:
1. Start with your business goals. Before you begin tracking any metrics, it’s important to define your business goals. What do you want to achieve, and how do you plan to get there? Think big picture and small picture. Do you want to focus on lead generation, sales, demand generation, or something else?
If you want to do all of the above, think about how you would separate them by campaign or marketing technique. Once you have a clear understanding of your goals, you can identify the metrics that are most relevant to tracking progress and success.
2. Focus on metrics that are relevant to your business. It’s easy to get caught up in tracking metrics that may look impressive, or metrics you think you’re supposed to care about, but have little to no relevance to your business. Instead, focus on metrics that are directly tied to your business objectives and that provide meaningful insights into the performance of your business.
Some easy metrics that would be useful to almost anyone include CLV, CAC, conversion rates, and ROI. But, if your important metrics include something that may be a vanity metric to someone else’s business, don’t get discouraged—think about your business and your business only. As they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
3. Consider the customer journey. The customer journey is the path that a customer takes from the initial contact with your business to the point of purchase and beyond. For optimum performance, you must not just consider individual metrics across this journey, but the picture they paint when you combine them and analyze them holistically.
By tracking metrics at each stage of the customer journey and synthesizing these metrics to draw conclusions, you can identify areas where you can improve the customer experience and increase conversion rates.
4. Don’t forget about qualitative data. While quantitative data can provide valuable insights, qualitative data can offer a more in-depth understanding of your customers’ needs and behaviors. Consider using surveys, customer feedback, and social media listening tools to gather qualitative data that can help you make more informed decisions.
This is especially powerful when combined with quantitative data—unsubscribe rates that include reasons why people unsubscribed are 1,000x more valuable than staring at the numbers for hours and trying to figure it out yourself.
5. Use data visualization tools. Data visualization tools can help you make sense of large amounts of data and identify trends and patterns. It can also help you easily see which sets of data are worth analyzing and which ones aren’t. By presenting data in a visually appealing and easy-to-understand format, you can communicate insights to yourself and other key stakeholders, helping you make more informed decisions.
6. Regularly review and update your metrics. Your business goals and strategies are likely to change over time, and they’re especially likely to change across marketing campaigns. To get the most out of your metrics, it’s important to regularly review and update the metrics that you’re tracking to check if they’re still useful. By doing so, you can ensure that you’re always tracking the metrics that are most relevant to your business objectives.
Aim to review your metrics every quarter or so, and review them again whenever there’s a new campaign, a major shift in the business’s direction or objectives, or a new change in your audience’s behavior.
Tools and Techniques for Tracking Metrics
So how do you track actionable metrics?
There are many tools, softwares, and strategies out there, many of which track both vanity metrics and actionable metrics. Like anything else, they’re only as good as the person who’s using them—so don’t expect the right tool to magically solve all your problems.
Here are some of the most popular analytics platforms and tools you can use to get started tracking metrics. Many of these are best used in combination with each other or in combination of more advanced tools that are customized to your specific goals.
- Google Analytics. Google Analytics is one of the most popular tools for tracking website traffic and user behavior. It provides a wealth of data, including information about user demographics, traffic sources, and page performance. It can also help you track conversions, bounce rates, and other important metrics.
- Semrush. Semrush is a tool that helps you optimize your website for search engines. It provides valuable insights into your website’s SEO performance, including keyword rankings, backlinks, and traffic sources. It also helps you track your competitors’ performance and identify opportunities for improvement.
- Hootsuite. Hootsuite is a social media management tool that can help you track social media metrics, including likes, shares, and engagement rates. It also provides data on follower growth, reach, and demographics, making it easy to measure the success of your social media campaigns.
- Mixpanel. Mixpanel is an analytics tool that helps you track user behavior and measure the impact of your marketing campaigns. It provides insights into user engagement, retention, and conversion rates, helping you identify areas for improvement and optimize your campaigns.
- A/B testing tools. A/B testing tools such as Optimizely or VWO enable you to test changes in your website or app and measure the impact on key metrics such as conversion rates, bounce rates, and engagement rates.
Vanity metrics are very attractive due to their ego-boosting properties and ease of measurement, and occasionally, they may even be useful.
But in general, they provide little insight into your business’s performance and may lead you to make poor decisions based on incomplete information. Instead of relying on vanity metrics, it’s best to skip them in favor of actionable metrics that provide long-term benefit to your company.
Today, you learned:
- How to recognize vanity metrics and the dangers of using them.
- How to recognize actionable metrics and why they’re more valuable to your business’s growth.
- 6 steps you can take to ensure you’re focusing on the right metrics for your goals.
- 10 examples of vanity metrics and actionable metrics so you can get a good sense for which is which.
Have you ever used vanity metrics and experienced negative consequences? What’s your strategy for determining the best metrics to track?
Let me know in the comments below.
Keep AutoGrowin’, stay focused.