Your video just went viral, and you’re raking in page views. Congratulations! Your digital marketing campaign is a success, right? Not so fast. While it’s gratifying to know people are watching your content or visiting your site, these numbers are vanity metrics that connect only loosely with your business goals.

So, how do vanity metrics work, and what data should you focus on instead?

Rodney Warner

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Vanity Metrics vs. Actionable Metrics

Listen to Rodney discuss the difference between vanity and actionable metrics.

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What Are Vanity Metrics?

Vanity metrics are all those numbers that look imposing but don’t translate into business success. These include page views, social media followers, shares, and other stats that may seem amazing yet don’t really give you a clear picture of campaign performance or useful, actionable metrics.

Here’s an example: Suppose a social media campaign drives 50,000 views to your page. You get excited, only to realize that the click-through rate for the page’s main link is zero. That’s right, not one of those viewers ordered your product, subscribed to your newsletter, or scheduled a consultation. You got traffic, but nothing to show for it at the end of the day.

Now, suppose a second campaign only gets you 14 views, but three of these viewers make a purchase or hire your service. This thin trickle of traffic is much more useful to your business than an explosion of views with no sales or opt-ins. Thus, campaign #2 is more successful.

Are Vanity Metrics Completely Meaningless?

“But Rodney,” you may say, “Every digital marketing guide talks about traffic and followers. That’s how my business gains visibility and climbs up in Google rankings. Are you telling me it’s meaningless?”

Not exactly. Of course, traffic, followers, subscribers, and other exciting buzz metrics can impact your business goals. For instance, you can’t make sales if nobody sees your pages. But views, subscribers, user numbers, online event attendance numbers, and other vanity metrics can be extremely misleading. These numbers alone won’t give you the data you need to measure ROI or make crucial business decisions.

How Do You Know a Number Is a Vanity Metric?

How do you identify vanity metrics? To determine whether a given statistic is a meaningful indicator or just a feel-good number, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does this metric offer context? Can you use it to determine a meaningful trend or pattern?
  2. Does the metric show user intent? For instance, does Time on Page mean users engage more with your content or find product guidelines difficult to understand?
  3. Is this metric actionable? How would you use it to choose or fine-tune your marketing strategies?

The last point is probably the most important. If a metric won’t give you actionable insights, it’s probably a vanity metric.

For instance, let’s say one of your videos gets a million views and your number of subscribers shoots up. While it’s definitely a positive thing, this won’t take you very far if you’re unsure how to use or control this metric to improve your social media strategy and if your digital marketing tactics stay the same whether your subscription rates climb or drop.

Common Examples of Vanity Metrics

bored people on their phones

These are some vanity metrics that often confuse marketers and business owners:

  • Page views. The number of page views means little without factors like bounce rate, unique users, time on page, and more.
  • Social media followers. You can have a lot of likes or followers but very little engagement, interaction, click-throughs to your site, or revenue generated from social media.
  • Email list subscribers. Maybe your subscriber numbers are rising because you’re offering a freebie or another incentive, but this means little if 95% of your subscribers delete your newsletters unread.
  • Running totals. Running totals of customers or sales only go up, so this is a feel-good metric that doesn’t really help track performance over time.
  • Downloads. App and software downloads only tell part of the story without the number of active users, upgrade rates, uninstall rates, and other related data.

All these indicators have one thing in common: They look great at first glance and appear impressive on quarterly reports, but they tell very little about the health of your business strategies or what you can do to improve them.

If a metric makes you say, “Wow, that’s outstanding,” but does nothing to shape your marketing strategy or business decisions, it’s most likely a vanity metric. I’m not saying you should ignore it, but you’ll probably need deeper analysis to glean actionable insights.

Another characteristic of vanity metrics is their lack of context. Page views, subscribers, numbers of followers, and downloads tend to grow over time, either organically or through paid traffic. These metrics don’t tell you what prompts a client to buy your product, hire you, opt out of your services or how to make your business more cost-efficient. If you focus too much on vanity metrics, you may be completely lost whenever your Google rankings drop and you try to optimize around the wrong statistics.

What Makes a Metric Useful and Actionable

The line between vanity metrics and useful, actionable indicators can be blurry. For instance, if your sales went through the roof last quarter after you applied a different marketing strategy, it’s definitely a reason to celebrate. But if you aren’t sure why you’re suddenly making more money or how to keep this trend rolling, the current uptick in sales may mean little for your business in the long run.

A metric is meaningful and actionable if:

  • You and your team understand why you’re tracking it
  • You view it in context alongside other metrics that help you see a broader picture
  • You know how this metric impacts your business
  • If this metric fluctuates, you know how to adjust your business strategies accordingly
  • The strategic decisions you had previously made based on this metric proved justified

In other words, an actionable, valuable KPI should be SMART: 1) specific, 2) measurable, 3) assignable/attributable, 4) relevant, and 5) time-based.

Actionable metrics help you make wise business decisions. They take the guesswork out of your digital marketing and help you avoid wasting resources on methods that don’t work or produce patchy results. They help you conclude, “OK, now that we see X, we’re going to do Y.”

An Example of a SMART KPI

woman looking at computer screen

Let’s say you run a geo-centric business serving a specific area. Metrics like total website traffic or number of YouTube subscribers mean little if you want to help your business thrive. A better choice of a KPI would be a monthly increase in the number of new paying clients you acquire through your website.

This metric answers the definition of SMART since it’s:

  • Specific: You’re looking at a precise, targeted number.
  • Measurable: Measuring how many new clients your business acquires through your website each month is easy.
  • Assignable: You can attribute this metric to specific methods your business uses and experiment with these methods to test your theory.
  • Relevant: This KPI is highly relevant to your business growth.
  • Time-based: This metric will give you more valuable insights as you view it over time and analyze trends.

How To Ensure You Choose Actionable Metrics Over Vanity Metrics

So, what metrics should you focus on instead of those cheery numbers that look exciting but don’t help you take your business in the right direction? KPIs that are usually valuable, meaningful, and actionable include:

Again, it’s all about context. For instance, if you’re testing an ad campaign on Page A and Page B, and Page A generates significantly more revenue, that’s fantastic as long as you can analyze both pages, form a rational theory as to why Page A works better, and successfully test this theory on other pages.

But what if Page A’s superior performance leaves you scratching your head, and you can’t replicate it? Or what if you know you only got a spike in sales because a celebrity Tweeted about Page A? In this case, revenue may be just a vanity metric.

Dig Deeper Into Your Data

person making a decision

Often, numbers that are vanity metrics can help uncover meaningful KPIs. For instance, you can:

  • Use raw conversion numbers to determine conversion rates
  • Zero in on active, engaged followers out of all your social media followers
  • Look at bounce rates rather than page views
  • Analyze acquisition paths instead of looking at your total subscribers

Another factor to consider is the stage of your business growth. When you’re just launching your business, relevant and actionable data can gradually turn into vanity metrics down the road.

If you’re launching a new service and very few people have heard about you, traffic, social media followers, and email subscriptions may be legitimate goals in themselves, at least in the first months. But as your business gains a foothold, you’ll want to look deeper and analyze metrics like newsletter conversion rates and costs per lead, sale, and client.

Conclusion

Vanity metrics can be impressive, but don’t let them fool you. Always view all metrics in the context of related data and base your decisions on meaningful KPIs. Actionable metrics should give you a clear picture of your business model and help you develop better strategies.

Rodney Warner

Founder & CEO

Rodney’s two primary responsibilities are business development and marketing strategy. He produces highly effective marketing campaigns for our clients and works tirelessly to bring new opportunities to Connective and our connections. In his off time, he produces music, plays video games, enjoys his family, and eats way too much ice cream!

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