Nutshell version first: vanity metrics are metrics which help you look and feel good, but don’t help you make good decisions.
And now the scenic route:
Vanity metrics are like flamethrowers or samurai swords or nitroglycerin (take your pick). They’re all just tools—they’re not inherently “bad” and, in fact, each can serve certain purposes quite well—but outside of those narrow purposes, they’re each a bad idea if not downright dangerous. (All of them are maybe a little too fun for our own good.)
Statisticians and economists have a saying: figures don’t lie, but liars figure (the Shakespearean equivalent is ‘the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose’). The essential point is that numbers can be deceiving without the right context, even if the reporting is perfectly accurate—and vanity metrics are exceptionally good at concealing the useful truth behind distracting facts.
Let’s take two elementary examples from social media—how many Followers you have and how many Likes your latest post scored—and break down why they appeal to us even though they’re not useful for business.
Why Vanity Metrics Appeal to Us
For brevity’s sake, we’ll drop two big keywords, both of which we’ve covered in detail. The first keyword is groupthink: the silent, subliminal influence of social animals upon one another. The second keyword is persuasion, especially its social-proof and authoritative forms. Basically, vanity metrics appeal to us because they’re the crossroads between Neverending Monkey Popularity Contest and Well, Numbers Don’t Lie.
Why Vanity Metrics Aren’t Useful (99% of the Time)
In a sentence: there’s no direct causal link between vanity metrics and bottom-line success (and there’s often no correlation, either). Thus, vanity metrics are useless in any real attempt to understand what’s working, what’s not, and how best to maximize ROIs for your major marketing activities.
Go back to the examples of Likes and Followers. Sure, both are desirable—they feel good from the inside and look good from the outside—and in both cases, more is merrier all the way to the sky. But a billion followers has zero practical value for any business which is unable to monetize them, or otherwise unable to connect the statistical dots between the broadest high-level metrics and the dollar bills at the bottom.
Vanity metrics are certainly shallow and can be dangerous—and most of our discussion here will be Safety First, Safety First—but that doesn’t make them truthless or even totally useless.
As we said above, vanity metrics can serve certain purposes quite well. However, those purposes don’t include the sort of hard-nosed analysis you need for provable, profitable direct-response marketing—and as we’ll discuss further in our next section.
The Siren Songs of Salacious Statistics
The term ‘vanity metric’ is packed with judgment, and one of our tasks here is to unload the baggage that doesn’t help us in business.
As a word, Vanity is loaded with some pretty heavy stuff. More recently, we might think of any petty, superficial, or narcissistic people who obsess over the wrong things (especially themselves). But going way back, Vanity is a form of Pride, one of the Seven Deadly Sins—and in virtually every account, Pride is the worst of the seven. So when we hear the term ‘vanity metrics,’ we’re liable to picture a less-than-awesome person using them, someone who’s shallow and self-important and maybe even deceitful.
For today, leave that impression aside. For today, people tell the truth and try their best and, in all probability, just don’t know better yet. And the main reason a lot of people truly don’t know better is that vanity metrics are really good at first swaying the marketers who will spread the stats to others.
Five reasons we’re easily seduced by vanity metrics:
They’re readily available. Like, they’re literally right there. Zero digging of any kind. Just copy the numbers straight from the profile and call it a day.
They’re authoritative (because they come directly from the platform). Nobody ever questions whether Facebook’s follower and Like counters are accurate. But notice, as a contrast, what happens whenever you view any platform’s rich data using external analytics: you’re 100x likelier to question the accuracy if anything seems off, and largely because you’re aware that you’re not drinking the data straight from its source.
We always expect a struggle setting up more serious analytics. Take, for example, Google Analytics; it’s a fantastic tool and we use it and we recommend it to other people. But it’s not, like, fun. Quite the opposite: it’s a giant throbbing headache. That’s just the nature of the beast with any of this nitty-gritty data stuff: the deeper you want to get into useful specifics, the deeper you’re gonna have to dig the foundations to get it working.
We’ll always appreciate data that makes us look good. This is, of course, why they’re called ‘vanity metrics’ in the first place. But to be more specific: vanity metrics make us look good because most of them, most of the time, only ever go up. Metrics like Likes and followers give the impression (especially when graphed) that things are gradually moving in the right direction, and this is a comforting thought especially when sales are in the toilet. Comforting for ourselves, yes, but also…
We have bosses and/or clients who expect things. Which is natural and fair if they’re paying you for the things they expect—but still, those expectations cause some other complications, especially if the bosses/clients are not marketers themselves. For one thing: they expect results and, where most aren’t marketers, they don’t understand why you can’t guarantee those results, at which point vanity metrics help to buffer expectations. But then, even if you’re getting good results for real, explaining the more intense, grown-up metrics can often create more problems for you than it solves.
Common Vanity Metrics + What to Use Instead
Let’s get into some specific vanity metrics you might have used, along with the actionable metrics you can use in their place.
Three general pointers first:
‘Actionable metrics’ are the official opposite of ‘vanity metrics.’ We didn’t coin these phrases and you’re liable to see them elsewhere. The difference is much what the terms themselves would suggest.
The essential difference between them is Quality vs. Quantity. That’s obviously a broad stroke, but it’s a persistent theme in the specifics below, and it’ll help you to assess the true significance of the numbers people throw around.
All of this assumes profit as the first goal, as is necessarily the case for businesses intending to survive. For our purposes here, that’s the measuring stick for Quality: a metric’s ability to help marketers profit.
Each of the following vanity metrics, by virtue of what it is, fails the Okay So What Test. In other words: for most businesses, these metrics have no direct causal link to revenues or profits. So, for each vanity metric, we’ll give you two actionable alternatives…
Vanity Metric № 1: Page Views
Thinking that page views mean something is like thinking YOU mean something just because you walk through Times Square on your way to work. A lot of people technically “view” you, but that doesn’t make you Hot S**t.
One actionable alternative is Unique Users—because at least then you have some sense of how many unique individual people are seeing your page. If you’ve got 1000 page views but only 10 unique users, you’ve probably got some sort of stalker on your hands (if not ten of them).
Another option is Bounce Rate because it paints the opposite picture for you. Okay, a bunch of people landed on this page… but what percentage closed the tab without going anywhere else on your site? If the number’s too high (and the page isn’t supposed to be their last), you know the page is a buzzkill.
Vanity Metric № 2: Post Likes
When you stop to think about it, likability is valuable… within limits. You show me something everybody likes and I’ll show you something nobody loves.
Engagement takes the same idea as Liking, but narrows the definition to make it more meaningful. It’s not meaningless when somebody Likes something—ostensibly they really did like it in their minds—but a Like is nothing more than the simplest acknowledgement, a silent thumbs-up that only required them to move one thumb up. How many people stopped to share, or to write out a comment? When you think about it, THAT is the proof that someone is really paying attention.
Speaking of shares: Referrals. Tacking onto the idea above, there’s more value in something whenever someone decides to share it. Not just for social-proof reasons, but because it’s free lead acquisition!
Vanity Metric № 3: Friends, Followers, and/or Subscribers
Again, not meaningless—in fact, these are more valuable than the two vanity metrics above—but they’re not much closer to the money. Getting someone to follow you is still very different from getting someone to give you money.
In this case, a metric like Sessions will tell you how engaged those people are. If you have 10K followers, that sounds great—but the question is, how much do each of those 10K people care? If you have 100K sessions in the last month, it means those people are paying a lot of attention—but if you have 10K sessions (or fewer), it means your followers are mostly asleep.
Then we get into the specific sales aspect of things, where you’re asking how many of those people become customers when you give them a chance. That’s where Opt-In Conversion Rate, or Conversion to Purchase, or your equivalent can really start to set expectations for whether and how those followers will buy.
Vanity Metric № 4: Total Customers
As we mentioned previously, this vanity metric is attractive because it only ever goes up. A person who has bought from you—even if they bought once and hated it—cannot un-buy the thing they bought from you. But you’re a twisted (business)person if someone buys from you and hates it and you still consider them evidence of success.
Ask yourself instead: what are my percentages of New vs. Returning Customers? The heavier the latter number, the surer you can be that you’re doing something right.
Or perhaps, as a matter of mathematical interest: what’s the Average Order Value (AOV) of the customers who purchase? If it’s much higher, you don’t need people to convert or engage as frequently—but if it’s lower, you might need to change your offerings or invest in customer retention.
We’ll recommend two sources for further reading: this one from CrazyEgg and this one from Tableau. Next, we’ll discuss the one saving grace of vanity metrics and where you will actually want to take them seriously.
The Right Way to Use Vanity Metrics
So far, we’ve stressed two points: vanity metrics are appealing but don’t have any direct relationship to profits on the bottom line, and this is what makes their appeal dangerous.
At the same time, we’ve acknowledged that vanity metrics are still valid data, useful in other places—so to close out this series, we’re offering a bit of a Redemption Round by explaining where and how vanity metrics can be useful.
Nutshell version: vanity metrics can help you assess whether specific pieces of content resonate with a specific audience. A few easy examples:
👍 The number of Likes on a post is a face-value indication of how well people liked that post.
💬 The number of comments is a face-value indication of how well people explicitly engage with a post (not just like it).
➡️ The number of shares is a face-value indication of the post’s virality factor, or how likely someone is to spread it around their network.
When you examine this kind of data over time, across a collection of different posts, you get a real sense of which content types resonate most AND precisely how they resonate. This might not tell you anything about direct potential for profit—but it can absolutely tell you about the warmth of your audience, their hot points and soft spots, their reasons for liking you, and the wishes and wants they’re hoping you’ll fulfill.
All of this is useful information, even if it doesn’t have a direct causal relationship to profit. One theme of this series is that all accurate data can be useful, as long as you don’t conflate one form of usefulness with another.
Daniel Hochuli, in this worthwhile post from Content Marketing Institute, suggests that we think of ‘vanity metrics’ as optimization metrics instead—because that’s where their true usefulness lies.
As we’ve said over and over again, these vanity optimization metrics are not here to assess ROI or any form of direct success vs. earnings, and that’s the main mistake marketers make. At the same time, marketers care about more than just the dollars and cents; awareness, brand sentiment, reach, and engagement matter too, and that’s where vanity metrics can truly help.
We’ll recommend Hochuli’s post again in closing, this time because he does a good job at delving into nut-and-bolt details on how to use optimization metrics in A/B testing and content troubleshooting. He provides this helpful diagram (below) as a method of troubleshooting a specific sample problem; notice that the light-gray boxes are all vanity metrics, yet they’re the key to figuring out which of the six hypotheses on the right will explain the main problem on the left.