In Praise of Vanity Metrics

by · April 4, 201310 comments

In a recent Velocity Content Marketing Hangout, Joe Chernov said something interesting. In fact, he said very little that wasn’t interesting. But this one made me raise an eyebrow that took a while to come back down.

Joe said, “Don’t knock vanity metrics. Sometimes they’re all you’ve got.” (or something like that).

I had just been writing a spoof post that put all vanity metrics into one big infographic hierarchy (provisional title: ‘Ego Candy’). But Joe’s little side remark made me press pause on that one and write this one instead.

Because, of course, he’s right (it’s annoying how right Joe tends to be).

Vanity Metrics get really bad press by people who consider themselves hard core content marketers or social media ‘ninjas’ and it’s high time someone defended them. So here goes.

What is a vanity metric?

If real metrics are things that show you whether or not you’re succeeding, vanity metrics are things that make you feel like you’re succeeding.

The ones most people trot out are things like Twitter followers, Facebook likes, Page views, Registered Users and Downloads…

Vanity metrics are to content marketers what strokes are to the family dog. They make us wag our virtual tails and roll over for a high-rev tummy rub.

Why we’re supposed to hate them.

We’re supposed to hate them because they divert us from ‘actionable metrics’ – the ones that really do tell you what’s going on; the ones you can and should do something about; the ones that correlate really highly with the Mother of all Metrics: money in the bank.

Eric Ries called the obsession with vanity metrics ‘Success Theater’ and I take his point. But Theater is only bad when it lies to us about real life (or when it’s by Andrew Lloyd Weber). Theater can also be interesting, provocative and illuminating.

Why I like them anyway.

The folks who warn us away from vanity metrics are really just warning us away from replacing better metrics with vanity ones. Or getting so seduced by shares that we fail to notice we’re teetering on bankruptcy.

And of course, that’s a sound principle. You’d be crazy to value registered users over active daily users or to hold Facebook likes in higher esteem than, say, paying clients.

But that doesn’t mean vanity metrics are useless. In fact, they serve some important purposes.

Three important things vanity metrics can do for you. And one relatively frivolous one.

1) They can buy you time.

Most of the benefits that content marketing and social media marketing deliver take time to accrue. But the mean people with the purse strings aren’t always the most patient people in the world. Being able to dangle some vanity metrics in front of their noses can chill them out for long enough for the real metrics to kick in.

As long as you’re not still dangling them 24 months later.

2) They can indicate better things.

Vanity metrics are still metrics. They may not prove you’re succeeding in your ultimate goals but they provide evidence that you’re doing so.

Because, in most cases, vanity metrics do tend to correlate with bigger, better things.

After all, a complete lack of Facebook likes and Twitter followers and downloads starts to look like you just might be failing to gain what the venture capitalists like to call ‘traction’. No traction and the car stays still even though the wheels are spinning. (Ooh. Good analogy. Vanity metrics are to real metrics what RPM is to speed or miles per gallon).

And a million followers is at least an indicator that you’re saying something people are open to hearing.

3) They can give you an early warning sign that something important is broken.

If your Vanities are going all hockey-stick on you but your Actionables aren’t budging, you’ve got yourself some kind of mechanical breakage in your business machinery.

If Twitter followers aren’t translating into web sign-ups, maybe you’ve attracted the wrong followers or are tweeting about the wrong things or are making the wrong offer on the page. These are not only nice to know, they’re critical to know.

Fix your fundamentals and your vanity metrics should start indicating success again.  But only if you’ve learned your lessons from watching them.

(Continuing the car metaphor, RPM fails to correlate with MPG only when the car is up on blocks or mired in mud or has a missing gearbox.  See?  Something broke and the disconnect between your vanity metrics and actionable metrics told you so.)

4) They scare your competitors.

A million YouTube views is sure to get the wind up your arch enemies’ backsides. And that’s always fun.
(Of course, they’ll tell their bosses it’s ‘just a vanity metric’ — but their bosses haven’t read Eric Ries so they won’t buy it and the pressure will ramp up and they’ll do stupid things — like chase vanity metrics at the expense of market share).

Be honest with yourself.

Vanity metrics get a bad name when stupid or dishonest people use them to hide the real facts.
When a fund-raising entrepreneur puts Registered Users in his business plan and leaves Active Users out. Or when a marketer puts Page Views into a deck but leaves out the 92% bounce rate.

When people spend time and money actively pursuing vanity metrics at the expense of real ones, the trouble starts.

These people are either trying to fool someone or have already fooled themselves.

But you’re neither malicious nor stupid. You don’t have to fear what vanity metrics might do to your strategy or your budget. You only have to keep an eye out for con artists and morons waving ‘likes’ in your face.

And, since you’re smart and honest, it’s okay to go ahead and use vanity metrics as part of your bigger picture. They’re not the whole dashboard, but in the right hands they can be a useful widget.

Long story short: vanity metrics can and should be your friend. Just because others may misuse them, doesn’t mean you can’t use them well.

So use them well.

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About Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler

Doug Kessler is co-founder and creative director of Velocity Partners, the London-based B2B content marketing agency. Doug has written a lot about content marketing including the B2B Marketing Manifesto, the B2B Content Strategy Checklist and Crap: Why the Biggest Threat to Content Marketing is Content Marketing.

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  • http://TheSocialSideDoor.com/ Ian Greenleigh

    One of the ways vanity metrics can actually harm you: people think you’re hiding something negative they should know about. For example, during Dennis Crowley’s fireside chat at SXSWi this year, he mentioned total users as a positive proof point. It’s obviously a bigger number, but I couldn’t help but wonder, “Crowley is as smart as they come, so he knows total users don’t mean jack. Is he hiding the active users number because it’s pathetic?” I’m not accusing him of doing this, but the thought crossed my mind instantly. Same with when I hear about the star VCs backing something…from the company itself, as if that’s what they should lead with.

    • http://twitter.com/bdesarnauts Bernard Desarnauts

      Ian – totally agree w/ you here.

      Doug, I agree with your first point – aka they can buy your time but that’s about it. Sooner or later you have to have real meaningful metrics – so the longer you focus on the vanity ones, the less you focus on doing the hard work. So suggesting to use them even smartly is wrong for the mid/long term in my mind at least.

      Social vanity metrics remind me of the early days of the Web when everyone including Steve Jobs loved “hits” – such a great term isn’t it??? !

  • http://twitter.com/dougkessler dougkessler

    Good point Ian. Vanity metrics clearly have their dangers.

    Maybe I should have added under one of the ways to use Vanity metrics: “They signal something fishy when they’re waved too vigorously”!

  • ALW

    I love The Phantom of the Opera.

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  • anyaciecierski

    Love the line about the mean people with the purse strings. So true!

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