Vanity Metrics: The Inflated Way to Measure Marketing Performance

Our marketing reports shouldn't just leave our clients feeling warm and fuzzy; they should help them make critical business decisions over time. Learn more about vanity metrics and why they need to be used correctly to give our clients truly actionable performance insights.

by Gus Van der Walt

Marketing Analytics

| 6 min

As marketers for partner agencies and their clients, we know that accurate reporting starts with using the right metrics to describe tangible and actionable achievements. We measure and analyze our marketing activities to understand where we are doing well – and where there is room for improvement. Insights gained from reviewing this data should also enable our clients to make critical business decisions over time.

While it’s easy to fall back on so-called, feel-good ‘vanity metrics’ to measure marketing success, these metrics only tell us a small portion of the whole story and can limit our ongoing performance optimization efforts.

This blog looks at these vanity metrics, their common pitfalls, and how using them more effectively can help us achieve more tangible business results.

What are vanity metrics?

As their name implies, vanity metrics are key performance indicators (KPIs) frequently used in isolation to measure our more superficial marketing achievements. Popular vanity-based metrics monitored are pageviews, users per channel, rankings, followers, and even conversions.

The problem with vanity metrics is they don’t often tie back to, support, or impact any concrete business objectives. While they may often seem fantastic – which business doesn’t want hundreds of thousands of social media followers? – they are not always an accurate reflection of the success of our marketing activities. We can’t do much with them to improve our strategies or support our clients in reaching their business objectives.

Popular vanity metrics explored

Let’s take a closer look at these vanity metrics to understand why it’s not a good idea to use them on their own to measure marketing success.

Pageviews

In Google Analytics, pageviews are the number of views (or hits) that a page on a website gets. Each time a page is loaded (or reloaded), it triggers a page view hit. While knowing how many views a page receives is beneficial, it doesn’t provide actionable insights into our marketing performance.

For example, a homepage that receives 30,000 page views in a reporting season is a seemingly exciting result; however, if we scratch under the surface:

  • Do these pageviews translate into real business gains? I.e., do they correlate into actual sales or conversions?
  • Can we be certain that the number of pageview hits for a web page is an indication of its popularity?
  • Does reporting on pageviews genuinely reflect the success of our marketing efforts?

The answer to all the above questions is, ‘No.’

As a standalone metric, pageviews don’t provide any real insight into the end-user either. We cannot use this data to learn where these views came from, who the users were, or why they were visiting our clients’ sites in the first place, which means we can’t leverage this data to target their audiences better. Unfortunately, looking at page views alone provides an inflated view of the real story.

Users per channel

Users per channel is a metric that tracks how many users visit a website from organic or direct traffic sources. Like Pageviews, we can’t use this reporting measurement alone to measure our marketing strategies’ impact – whether positive or negative. User behavior fluctuates and cannot be controlled or easily replicated. What works well on a specific channel to increase traffic to a site in a given month won’t necessarily work again in delivering the same results in the next.

Another challenge is that a rush of traffic to a client’s site doesn’t necessarily mean they will see any conversions, as users may not be that qualified. An influx of unqualified traffic to a website can also impact conversion rates negatively, another reason why we can’t look at this metric alone to gauge marketing success.

Followers (fans, subscribers, listeners)

Followers gained on a social media platform are among the most coveted vanity metrics but do little to achieve true business objectives. Why? Having followers or fans in today’s social media climate doesn’t mean all that much. According to Hootsuite, only one in 19 of your followers will see your posts. The influence that this metric has on our clients’ business objectives is marginal, if at all.

Conversions (sales, form submissions, or downloads)

Conversions, such as form submissions or purchases on a website, have more weight than previous examples, but they also don’t tell the entire story. Often, the rate of increase isn’t always positive when compared to other metrics. For example, you may see that traffic to a client’s site has increased by 30%, but conversions have only increased by 2%. Can we answer why conversions only saw a minor increase for that period, despite the spike in traffic? Probably not.

How to identify if your reporting metrics are vanity ones?

So, you see, we can quickly go wrong by relying on vanity metrics alone to determine the success of our marketing efforts. That said, we needn’t throw all vanity metrics out like the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Instead, it’s more important to evaluate where we are leaning too heavily on metrics that don’t help our clients’ grow and then adjust our approach accordingly.

For example, we highlighted earlier that a website wouldn’t benefit from a spike in pageviews if this didn’t correlate with actual sales. A publisher, however, would measure pageviews from an entirely different perspective as each view they get results in more income over time. Pageviews aren’t a vanity metric in this instance.

Use these questions to decide if the metrics you’re tracking for your clients are more feel-good than functional:

  1. Can my client make a real business decision from the results we measure with this metric?
  2. Does this metric (or group of metrics) provide an honest and accurate reflection of my marketing performance?

Remember, the purpose of reporting on your marketing efforts is to show the real impact your activities have in growing your clients’ businesses. Answering the questions above will allow you to reflect on the metrics you look at the most and objectively question their value.

How should you be using vanity metrics?

You’ll be happy to hear that shifting your relationship with vanity metrics can help you optimize your marketing activities and decide where to focus more of your budget and energy.

For starters, different vanity metrics can be blended to tell a bigger story. We can compare data for:

  • Page rankings, impressions and users visiting the site to prioritize which pages need optimizing.

  • Impressions and clicks to see where we can optimize our click-through rates (CTR).

(In a future blog, we will delve deeper into where to find this data and how to compare this information to be more strategic with our search engine optimization and digital marketing efforts.)

Get your core website vitals checked for free

While vanity metrics may make us all feel great, they don’t help our clients’ businesses grow in the long term. If the metrics we are using to measure marketing performance don’t impact their business decisions or outcomes, then, sorry to say, they aren’t that vital to our performance measurement efforts.

By adjusting our approach to using these metrics, we can adapt our campaigns, understand where to prioritize our efforts, and get a clearer sense of our strategic direction. In turn, these efforts will impact the more actionable metrics we can track (more on this in our next article) and, finally, help our clients make more informed business decisions.

Click here to find out how SiteCare can help you grow your agency while enabling your clients’ online success.

Gus Van der Walt | Senior SEO Strategist

Gus van der Walt is a Senior SEO strategist here at SiteCare, LLC. Gus has been growing traffic and visibility for 10+ years. In his spare time, Gus can be found researching new SEO tactics or snapping photos of Cape Town.

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