Without fail at nearly every marketing conference, someone rails against vanity metrics. Stop measuring them. They don’t matter. They’re the devil. Variations on those themes. So let’s clear the air a bit, because just as some people put too much importance and faith in vanity metrics, other people discount them too much.
What Are Vanity Metrics?
The generally accepted definition is that vanity metrics are metrics that make you look good but don’t lead to the outcomes you want.
When asked, people refer to the following as examples of vanity metrics:
- Open rates
- Page visits
What do all these have in common? They’re all very much top of funnel metrics. And to be clear, when we say funnel, we’re talking the marketing operations funnel, the way we organize our marketing internally. Customers don’t follow a funnel, but we have to if we want to stay organized.
Why Are Vanity Metrics So Over-Reported?
The trend among marketers, particularly around the start of the age of social media in the mid-2000s, was to report on audience numbers like followers as an outcome. Why? Because at the time, we had no better ways to measure the results our marketing generated. Remember that even tools like Google Analytics didn’t have any kind of assisted conversion tracking until 2011.
Vanity metrics are the legacy of marketing that saw strategies and tactics vastly outpace measurement. They’re the numbers that were accessible at the time, and even today, they’re the numbers that are easiest to report on.
Why Do Marketers Hate on Vanity Metrics So Much?
This one’s easy. Performance-focused marketers dislike vanity metrics because of how distant they are from marketing KPIs, especially in complex sales. Consider the chain of interactions that the average marketer should measure:
- Awareness measures: vanity metrics!
- Consideration measures: returning visitors, branded organic searches, newsletter subscribers, etc.
- Evaluation measures: marketing qualified leads, shopping cart starts, contact us form fills, etc.
- Conversion measures: sales qualified leads, completed ecommerce purchases, demos booked, etc.
Because vanity metrics are so far from the outcome, it’s difficult to determine if they matter at all. As such, marketers tend to spurn them.
In terms of analytics sophistication, this isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world. It’s an improvement over the last couple of decades; marketers focusing on real outcomes that yield business results is a good thing. We shouldn’t stop that. Keep focusing on the outcomes you get paid to generate.
But hating on the top of the funnel is illogical. If the top of the funnel is empty, the rest of the funnel doesn’t matter. If we have no audience, we cannot create consideration because no one is paying attention to us, and that means no evaluation, and no results. So we know logically that vanity metrics have to count for something, because if they were zero, our marketing would also be zero.
Do Vanity Metrics Matter?
Here’s the challenging part, the part that will highlight your progress towards marketing analytics maturity.
Most vanity metrics don’t matter.
And you can’t determine which do and don’t by eyeballing them. The only way to tell the difference between metrics that matter and metrics that don’t is through math and statistics.
Vanity Metric Evaluation Walkthrough
Here’s an example. We’ll start with Google Analytics data – users as my main metric, goal completions as my objective that I care about, and then every source/medium combination for the year to date:
Next, I’ll add in social channel performance data from Agorapulse, both at the content level (individual post performance) as well as account level (followers/engagement performance):
And then I’ll add in YouTube data and Google Search Console data, yielding what’s effectively a very, very large spreadsheet with 98 columns:
Here’s where the math part comes in. We could manually write out all the code needed to test every possible regression algorithm against the dataset, but I like my sanity. So, using a tool like IBM Watson Studio, I’ll have a machine do all that testing instead, building model after model to find the most accurate description of what predicts goal completions.
Pause for a moment and give some thought as to what metrics you think will make the cut, that will show real value, real impact on our KPI.
What we’re looking at here is a variable importance model; it describes what variables in the dataset have the greatest importance, the greatest contribution to the outcome I care about. Topping the list is Google Search Console impressions – the more my site shows up in search, the better. The second is overall Google Analytics website traffic. And the third…
…is the number of Twitter followers I have.
The ultimate in vanity metrics, one inveighed against mightily for years. And yet, in this mathematical model, it has more relevance to my outcome – Google Analytics goal completions – than many other variables.
Now, to be clear, this is a regression analysis, which means this is correlative. This doesn’t prove causation, but it does set the ground for testing, for designing experiments that can help prove causation. After all, this could be reverse causation – as my site engagement and conversions go up, people might naturally find their way to Twitter and follow me there.
How would I design those experiments? I might conduct an organic follower growth campaign, or even spend some money on a paid followers campaign. If, as followers go up, my conversions also go up by the same proportional amount, I’d start chipping away at causation.
But the key to remember is (for the most part) if there’s no correlation, there’s almost certainly no causation. So at the least, I cannot dismiss Twitter followers as purely a vanity metric outright for my marketing. Facebook fans? Sure – they didn’t make the top 25 in terms of variable importance.
And keep in mind – this is unique to my website, my data. This is not at all a proof point for anyone else’s data, so don’t think just because my outcomes have Twitter followers as a component that yours do too. You must do this analysis with your own data.
Here’s the most important takeaway: you cannot assume you know what metrics matter and don’t matter. You must evaluate them with some kind of mathematical model to determine which ones really matter. Only after you’ve done a model can you truly choose what matters and what doesn’t in terms of reporting and focus, prove causation, and then start building marketing strategy around your metrics.
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- Almost Timely News, 17 October 2021: Content Creation Hacks, Vanity Metrics, NFTs
- Marketing Data Science: Introduction to Data Blending
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