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What is a Vanity Metric, and Which KPIs Paint a Misleading Picture?

Marketers are in a toxic relationship with vanity metrics. This category of metrics is appealing to look at but utterly misleading when connecting marketing efforts to return on investment (ROI) or customer lifetime value (CLTV).

According to a study by Viant, 36% of CFOs listed the use of vanity metrics by CMOs as the second biggest concern in their organization. And this ultimately makes them see digital marketing more as a cost center than a profit center.

This guide will explore what vanity metrics are and how to identify them. We will also discuss popular examples and actionable alternatives that will not only give you the right insights but empower you to make smarter, data-driven decisions.

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What Are Vanity Metrics?

Vanity metrics are data that seem impressive on the surface but do not necessarily provide insights into the impact of your marketing efforts. The vanity aspect of the metrics comes from their improper use. There’s no ideal metric; each one can be misused or manipulated into showing the desired result.

For instance, a company runs two social media ad campaigns. One ad gets 10,000 likes and 5,000 comments, while the other has 1,000 likes. Evaluating their effectiveness based on the engagement level, you will see that the first campaign resulted in a healthy amount of buzz—kudos to the creators! In contrast, the other campaign should be optimized or stopped. 

But what about the bottom line? An ad with 1,000 likes can generate more sales than another ad with 10,000 likes. In this situation, metrics such as likes and comments are vanity metrics and will ultimately result in incorrect decision-making. 

What is a vanity metric?

Vanity metrics often give an exaggerated impression that your marketing strategies are effective. However, they quickly begin to fall apart when you try to connect them to the relevant objectives. 

How to Identify Vanity Metrics

The problem with vanity metrics is that they’re everywhere, and without proper context and understanding of what change you want to measure, you might find yourself judging your marketing effectiveness based on misleading KPIs. 

To effectively identify marketing performance metrics within the vanity category, you will need to ask a few pertinent questions.

Does your metric reflect the change you are aiming for?

To avoid riddling your marketing reporting with vanity metrics, you need to ensure that each metric has the power to influence business decisions.

Let’s say you want to boost your lead gen strategy with gated content. Your ultimate goal is to attract high-value prospects and drive more revenue. As you start sending traffic to a landing page with gated content, you notice your page views climbing. Is it a good indicator you’re getting close to your goal? 

There’s no direct correlation between traffic and a desired outcome, like revenue. So, what would a  more goal-centered metric be? 

Instead, you need to pay attention to the number of new contacts collected, how many disco books one copy generated, and ultimately how much each download contributes to the pipeline. These are the metrics that can help you gauge the performance of your gated content, nurturing sequence, and overall gated content strategy.

Remember, if a metric can’t influence an important decision, then it’s best to pocket it.

Can you replicate the results?

Another thing to consider when identifying vanity metrics is whether these metrics reflect repeatable results. Is it possible to repeat specific results using the insights from the metrics in question?

If your post goes viral because an industry opinion leader shared it, you’re likely to see a spike in the metrics that inform your marketing campaign. However, getting an influencer to share your posts is something that isn’t really within your control.

If you can’t control the variables to deliver statistically similar outcomes, you won’t be able to improve the process. In that case, they’re not dependable enough to serve as metrics your team can model to improve results for future campaigns.

When looked at individually, can the metric manipulate your perception?

Let’s consider paid ads here. Ads have many appealing metrics. Yet, some of them are misleading simply because you can easily pump the numbers by injecting more funds. Other metrics heavily depend on the presence of your competitors. 

If you increase your ad spend, you can ramp up your number of impressions and clicks. But these metrics alone don’t portray the entire picture, and neither do they show the relevancy of clicks. To measure performance more accurately and see the bigger picture, you need to consider things like cost per conversion and how the campaign affects the bottom line.

When you settle on clicks or CTR as your single reason to stop the experiment or pause a keyword, you’re basing your decisions on a vanity metric.

Vanity Metrics vs. Actionable Metrics

What passes as an actionable metric in one situation could be seen as a vanity metric later. The key lies in identifying your organization’s unique goals and analyzing these metrics in the context of such goals.

Here are some of the general differences between vanity metrics and actionable KPIs.

Actionable Metrics

Vanity Metrics

Can be directly tied to key outcomes in the context of an organization’s objectives

Lack nuance and substance and can’t be tied to key outcomes

Require time, qualification, and testing 

Easily accessible right off the bat

Offer deep insights

Superficial

Reinforce decision-making

Don’t support decision-making on their own

Tip: To avoid struggling with vanity metrics, prioritize quality over quantity by narrowing it down to the metrics your organization actually needs. That way, you won’t get lost in a sea of irrelevant data. Alongside being actionable, your metrics should also be accessible and auditable. Check out the 12 best marketing dashboards and templates to get a taste of what metrics to track and how to do it. 

Problems When Reporting with Vanity Metrics

According to Gartner, marketing budgets have gone from 6.4% of company revenue in 2021 to 9.5% in 2022. And because CFOs generally view digital marketing more as a cost center, CMOs are under constant pressure to justify every dollar spent on marketing campaigns. That said, irrelevant campaign metrics can have negative implications in your quest to create reports that tie campaign funding to objectives.

What concerns CFOs have regarding digital marketing

Furthermore, vanity metrics say very little about the customer journey. They pay more attention to things that make the organization look good—page views, likes, downloads, followers, etc.—but barely deliver data on how consumers behave at crucial phases of their conversion journey.

⚡️Over time, this can result in wasted budget, unrealistic expectations, and inconsistent results.

Vanity Metrics Examples

As already established, if it fails to show a direct connection with key objectives, it is a vanity metric.

That said, here are some of the most common metrics that fall under the “vanity” category, along with suitable alternatives you should include in your next reports.

Hits

Hits, a term commonly used by marketers to describe page views or visits, is one of the most infamous vanity metrics in digital marketing. According to Eric Ries

“[Hits] has all the worst features of a vanity metric. It violates the ‘metrics are people, too’ rule [by counting] a technical process, not a number of human beings”.

Analyzing traffic in a vacuum and optimizing your strategies based on this metric alone would be scaling a failure. You would need to dig deeper and ask pertinent questions to determine the nature of these hits, how many uniques you’re getting, where they’re coming from, the behavior of visitors on your page, etc., and this will lead you straight to an actionable metric.

Here are some alternatives you can focus on instead:

  1. Bounce Rate—Number of visitors that leave your landing page without clicking a CTA or navigating to other pages. This will help you understand if your messaging resonates with the target audience, give hints about the usability of your website, and more.
  2. MQL and SQL—Number of marketing qualified leads (MQL) and sales qualified leads (SQL) your company acquired that started their journey on this landing page.

Social media followers

A large social media follower count is cool. That “social proof” makes your brand look popular and trustworthy. But does it say anything about how much revenue you’re generating or the impact your brand is making? Not necessarily.Having your largest followership on Twitter, for example, doesn’t guarantee it’ll generate the highest sales across all of your social media channels. 

The key is to select a metric in the context of your company goals on social media: business conversions, brand awareness, or customer advocacy.

Here are actionable metrics you should include in your next social media report:

  1. Engagement Rate—Percentage of followers who are liking, commenting, and sharing your posts over a specific period.
  2. Mentions and Shares from influential followers—The number of times some of your most influential followers mentioned your brand in their posts or shared your content. 
  3. Video Completion Rate—Percentage of viewers who watch your videos to the end.
  4. Click Through Rate—Number of followers who click on the link included in a post vs. the number that saw the post (impressions).

You can also track your follower base demographic and how it changes over time, which can provide valuable insights into the type of content you should be producing.  

👉 Compare your social media performance to YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok benchmarks 

Running total of customers

This is one of the most popular feel-good metrics in digital marketing. The number is always going up, which in itself is a telltale sign of a vanity metric, but it doesn’t paint a complete picture.

It doesn’t show the pace at which your customer base is growing, how much you’re spending on each acquisition, how many customers are churning over time, etc. All of this information is mission-critical in helping you keep your customers happy and paying. But you need to go beyond the raw total to see them.

Context is key in this question. Instead of tracking the total number of customers, analyze the year-over-year or month-over-month growth. If you’re running experiments and see the ratio is declining (while the total number of customers is still growing), you will know that your performance has been negatively affected. At the same time, if the ratio suddenly drops and your team didn’t make any changes to the marketing strategy or customer experience, you’ll know there is a  problem somewhere along the customer journey.

Email subscribers and open rates

Both subscriber list size and email open rates are better used for optimization, not reporting on critical outcomes. Open rate, in particular, has become less reliable due to new privacy policies and image blocking features from email platforms.

To deliver a more reliable report, you should focus on these instead:

  1. Deliverability—The ratio of the number of emails hitting subscriber inboxes and the number of emails sent out by your email service provider (ESP) or your marketing platform.
  2. Spam Rate—The number of times your emails were marked as spam over the total count of delivered/opened emails.
  3. Conversion Rates—Depending on the mechanism behind your email campaign, this can either relate to Click Rate or Reply Rate (which respectively are ratios of clicks or replies over the count of opened/delivered emails).
  4. Conversion Rates further down your funnel all the way to the amount of pipeline/revenue influenced by email touch points.

Click here to read more on email marketing metrics and benchmarks across industries. And don’t forget to implement a proper UTM markup for links sitting in email CTAs. This will ensure your marketing analytics platform will track the email channel, as well as attribute email touch points to revenue and costs per such touch points to CAC.

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Staying on Track

It is important to understand that vanity metrics aren’t useless. They’re just counterproductive when used incorrectly, especially when stakeholders are only interested in which metrics drive revenue.

Daniel Hochuli from Content Marketing Institute says he prefers the term “optimization metrics” over vanity metrics because the former highlights what these metrics can be used for: optimizing content for specific channels or analyzing non-transactional data.

Ultimately, it is important to clearly define your marketing goals and stick to metrics that are mission-critical to your objectives. That way, you won’t find yourself drowning in a whirlpool of vanity metrics.

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