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What is a Vanity Metric?

by Richard Bayston

A metric that makes you feel good without telling you anything about your business.

Or as Tim Ferris puts it:

‘Vanity metrics: good for feeling awesome, bad for action.’

Vanity metrics are things you can measure that don’t matter. They’re easily changed or manipulated, and they don’t bear a direct correlation with numbers that speak to business success.

People use vanity metrics because they don’t know that these numbers don’t really count, or because vanity metrics can make you feel like you’re getting results – even though they don’t really tell you anything about your business health or growth.

What’s Wrong With Vanity Metrics?

The trouble with vanity metrics is that they steer you off course. You measure things so you can make decisions based on the measurements, but vanity metrics don’t contribute to that process.

Make decisions based on them and you’ll lose your way.

Visits vs select a metric
Source

Typical vanity metric in action: a massive spike in website visits in early August.

Great – more visits is good, right? And whatever we did in July must have made this happen, so let’s do way more of that and we can get an even bigger spike.

This is how vanity metrics seduce you away from the measurements that really matter. You can’t know from this graph what caused that spike – something you did? Something someone else did? Maybe you got some attention from an influencer, or a mention on a high-authority site – or maybe something random and unrepeatable. That’s point one.

Point two is the kicker: it doesn’t actually matter how many people visit your website because you don’t make money off visitors. Or likes or followers or users. You make money off customers. If it doesn’t contribute to getting more customers, better customers or happier, more loyal customers, it’s a red herring.

Vanity Metrics vs. Actionable Metrics

Typical vanity metrics include basic measures like pageviews and social media likes.

For each vanity metric, there’s a corresponding actionable metric that really tells you something important about what’s happening in your business. Here’s how some of the more common ones stack up:

Vanity Metrics Actionable Metrics

The difference between them is that actionable metrics link directly to business success and speak to customer or audience behavior. We acquired more customers – great. But unless we know how much we paid for each one and how much they’re worth, we don’t have business metrics. We could be growing a huge customer base and going broke at the same time, and we wouldn’t be the first or the last.

We know how much we’re spending on marketing – but that’s like throwing a hundred hooks over the side of the boat and calling it a success. Wait – did you catch any fish? What’s the ROI on that marketing spend?

Social media likes are classic vanity – they even speak directly to our desire to be liked. And most of us have written, designed, filmed or otherwise created content, published it and wondered if anyone out there really cares.

Well, when you have a bunch of likes, you still don’t know if anyone really cares. Get some real engagement – some responses, conversations, referrals, some fans on social saying to other people that you’re great.

Even that far up the funnel we can say ‘this is significant behavior, measuring it gives us significant metrics: this is insignificant behavior and measuring it gives us numbers that don’t matter.’

So, If I’m Not Watching Likes and Page-Views, What Should I Be Monitoring?

Actionable metrics can be divided by how close they are to revenue and costs. There’s no more urgent or vital information about your company than its P&L report.

Start with revenue metrics

Closest of all are revenue metrics themselves:

  • Customer Lifetime Value (CLV)
  • Total revenue
  • Net profit
  • Recurring revenue – monthly (MRR) and yearly (ARR)
  • Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC)

After this crucial information about how many customers you have, what they’re worth and how much they cost to acquire, the next thing you need to know is where they’re coming from.

Acquisition metrics: where are your customers coming from?

The ideal way to do this depends on which tools you use, obviously, but with Google Analytics the Users Flow Report lets you build a model of your funnel and track users through it, identifying pages that generate or hook leads – and pages that leak them.

Google Analytics user Flow Report
Source

Conversion rates

Conversion rates, not conversion rate. The overall conversion rate of the site is too broad and general. It’s not actionable. You need to know the conversion rate of pages, and which types of traffic do and don’t convert on each page.

Getting down into the per-page conversion rates in Google Analytics:

Landing Page E-commerce Conversion Rate
Source

Checking on the conversion rate by traffic source, in the Channel Grouping report:

Channel Grouping E-commerce Conversion Rate
Source

A page might convert great with traffic from organic search but do an awful job of converting PPC traffic.

Even if you get down to the per-page level, knowing just the raw conversion rate for that page would give you a totally wrong impression of how the page performs – you might think it was an average performer, when in fact it’s killing it with one type of traffic and failing completely to convert another.

This also feeds into your knowledge of what to A/B test – another form of action vanity metrics can’t give you information on.

CrazyEgg Confetti Report
Source

Then you know which pages to test, and which audiences to target. If you’re using a tool that lets you segment actions by referral source right on the page, you’ll also know exactly which elements to test.

Conclusion

Watching stuff that makes you feel good, but doesn’t tell you anything, is a bad idea in business. Track metrics that tell you things you actually need to know about your business and your marketing, let you make smart decisions that demonstrably lead to better ROI or more revenue (both would be nice), and aren’t a meaningless distraction from optimizing your business for success.

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Richard Bayston

Richard Bayston creates copy and content at RBCopywriting.com, mostly about tech, digital marketing and content strategy. When he’s not doing that, he’s arguing amicably with his wife and Googling the answers.

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