The word vanity is often reserved for those who showcase an inflated sense of pride in themselves. It also indicates that something is empty, worthless, or valueless. In a marketing context, vanity can often be used to describe some of our most cherished metrics.
So how do you actually define vanity metrics in marketing, and how do you determine if a metric is pointless or full of actionable insight?
What are vanity metrics?
Vanity metrics represent marketing metrics that look good on the surface. However, they do not translate to business results or contribute to the bottom line.
But there’s a catch.
Talk to a CEO or CFO, and they’ll want to know how marketing has contributed to sales, increased revenue, and earned ROI. Meanwhile, a CMO might be keen to understand what’s the brand’s share of voice on the market. The point is different metrics matter to different people depending on their own perspectives and goals.
Here is one definition of vanity metrics, coming from Hubspot:
"Vanity metrics include data such as social media followers, page views, subscribers, and other flashy analytics that are satisfying on paper, but don't move the needle for your business goals. They offer positive reporting, but no context for future marketing decisions -- something actionable metrics can do."
The Content Marketing Institute gives another definition:
“Vanity metrics include impressions, ‘likes,’ shares, comments, followers, open rates, views, traffic, time on site, bounce rate, and more.”
So, are these accurate descriptions? In reality, the subject is a bit more nuanced and complex.
A closer look
While there is some truth to the two definitions above, vanity metrics may not be this black and white. Let’s take a closer look at some of the examples given.
Ah, the old standby for measuring advertising reach: impressions. While it has long been integral to determining costs for ad placements, in the right scenario, impressions can certainly be considered a vanity metric.
Let’s imagine that you’re running a bottom-of-the-funnel campaign, and you want to drive as many conversions on your website as possible. Monitoring impressions may give you a sense of the general reach of your ads, but they don’t speak to the real goals of the campaign.
However, if you’re running a brand awareness campaign, impressions could be one of your KPIs. After all, there may not necessarily be any direct conversions or hard sales numbers that you can contribute to an awareness campaign. Instead, you’ll need to monitor impressions in addition to some other longer-term measures like share of voice or NPS score.
Let’s look at one particular scenario in between those two examples, though. Let’s say your team has been tasked with raising brand awareness to drive long-term demand. In the middle of this campaign, your business may begin to face some challenges, and leadership could become more sensitive to increasing hard performance numbers for the business.
While impressions could have been a legitimate KPI at the start of your brand awareness campaign, the metric could likely be ignored (or even met with skepticism) by your marketing leadership.
In this case, it’s still important to report on the initial agreed KPIs, but you would also be well-served to find some bridge metrics that help connect your campaign to more concrete sales figures.
Likes, shares and comments
Social media managers have long relied on engagement metrics, including likes, shares, and comments in order to measure the efficacy of their efforts. However, it’s also often the case that performance marketers at the same time may view these metrics as utterly worthless. After all, engagement metrics aren’t attributed to conversations and sales performance.
So, is social media engagement a vanity metric? It again depends on the goal of the marketing campaign. Much like in the impressions examples above, one person’s trash metrics is another’s treasure.
Particularly in the case of campaigns driving long-term demand, these engagements can serve as key indicators for brand awareness, brand affinity, and more. It might not lead to immediate sales, but it contributes to keeping the brand in mind.
So, what do you think? Let us know in the LinkedIn comments.
For some marketers, the bounce rate is seen as a negative sort of vanity metric. Sure, it tells us how many people leave our site quickly and don’t engage, but it doesn’t tell us anything about campaign performance, website conversions, or how we align with the hard sales goals of the organization.
If you are a conversion rate optimization (CRO) expert, though, you will view this metric as highly relevant and a critical KPI. That metric will guide you to take action, motivating you to run an A/B test to achieve a lower bounce rate.
For example, a CRO expert may want to encourage a website’s visitors to perform a specific action. If those visitors view the page content for less than 10 seconds, and then leave without triggering any events or visiting any other pages or screens, it gives a clear signal that something isn’t working.
Analytics tools will count these sessions as bounces, and the bounce rate percentage will increase. Again, this tells the CRO expert that they need to take action and increase the number of engaged sessions. This often means more digging and more experimentation.
The case for context
As we see in the examples above, it doesn't make sense to point to specific metrics and call them vanity metrics. Context and campaign goals play a large role in determining what metrics to look at and which to ignore.
Aligning on goals and KPIs
The most important thing marketers should learn is the importance of aligning on goals and KPIs from the get go.
Whether you are running a campaign for a client or an internal stakeholder, make sure to talk about the campaign’s goals and measurement strategies early on in the process to prevent conflicts later.
Here, we can apply the SEE-THINK-DO-CARE strategy to help manage expectations.
This framework was developed by Avinash Kaushik, a Google executive, and Fortune 500 consultant, to help professionals do their marketing from a customer's mindset. The aim is to help you create relevant content that aligns with your customer's intent during their buyer journey.
Why is it useful? Well, managing expectations, it can help you determine which metrics are useful and which qualify as vanity metrics for each stage of the campaign and buyer journey.
Here’s how the model looks, with the target audience and some example KPIs for each of the four stages:
While this process might not be identical for each team (or even members within the same team), bigger-picture goals create overlap. When team members respect that metrics can have different meanings for different people within the organization, that perspective can lead to a more positive, productive work environment.
Advice for marketers
Since vanity metrics in marketing tend to lack substance, aim for actionable metrics based on your objectives. When you focus on actionable metrics, you can make better decisions.
So, when is a variable considered actionable? The answer lies in the context. Here are some handy pointers that can hopefully help you to analyze data based on your core intent and target successfully.
- Clearly define your organization's goals. What metrics will help you know whether or not you are achieving your goals? You can use a KPI tree for this, as explained in our blog article about digital marketing reporting.
- Make sure that your metrics can speak to your specific performance goals. The KPIs you agree on at the outset of a project or campaign should be able to accurately measure the performance of yourself or your team. They should be able to provide actionable guidance on the strategies that are and aren’t working so you can determine the best next steps.
- Be sensitive to the other needs of the business. Understand that while some metrics are hugely consequential to your immediate work and team, other parts of the marketing organization may not find them relevant. And that’s ok! Find ways to communicate why your specific KPIs are essential, and how they can inform the work of other team members.
- Don’t be afraid to question yourself. It’s natural sometimes to get defensive of our work – and even our favorite metrics. Mainly when those metrics showcase our success. However, it’s still worth it to periodically question whether your selected metrics really paint an accurate picture or if they are maybe glossing over something you are lacking or missing.
Vanity metrics vs. actionable metrics
While vanity metrics can make you look good in the moment, they don’t provide clear guidance for the next steps. In contrast, actionable metrics provide valuable insights, resulting in more-informed, data-driven decisions.
The trick is understanding what metrics make the most sense for each goal. Think quality over quantity. When you focus on the right data points, you won't get lost in a sea of irrelevant data.
The bottom line is that marketers need to focus on metrics that are meaningful to their goals, working alongside other team members to ensure an aligned, big-picture approach. Just remember that, oftentimes, the beauty of a metric is in the eye of the beholder.