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Not all metrics are created equal: An argument against vanity metrics

By Kate Lee | 11/24/2015 | 3:31 AM

We all want to see the fruits of our labors. Whether launching a product or a new social media campaign, we look for instantaneous numbers that will affirm we made the right choices. But here’s the problem: not all metrics are created equal.

So-called vanity metrics are measurements that have no bearing on your bottom line but can give you an inflated sense of success. Generally, they are easy to calculate but are influenced by too many factors—and are too vulnerable to random external events—to be reliable.

Website visits and number of subscribers are two classic examples. A spike in homepage hits may be the result of your marketing efforts, or it may be because of ghost spam. (Or, both.) Regardless, more visits do not necessarily correlate to increased revenue—just more visits. In the same vein, having 100,000 email subscribers means nothing if only 1% are opening them. You actually could be losing money in terms of resources allocated if the emails aren’t helping drive sales.

That’s why it is crucial to focus on return on investment instead of vanity metrics. You could waste hours reviewing a hundred different analytics that tell you nothing about how revenue was affected by a particular effort. Or, worse, you could use vanity metrics to justify decisions that don’t achieve their ROI.

As a simplified example: say you spend $100 on a banner ad for a new product on an industry conference website, and your analytics report that 100 people clicked through. This sounds like success! But don’t celebrate just yet. When you dig past the vanity metric, you find an extremely high bounce rate. That means most of those click-throughs left your site immediately, neither engaging with your brand nor moving any closer to becoming a customer. In fact, you find that only one click-through converts. Was it worth paying $100 for this one customer? Probably not.

But say you ran another $100 banner ad on an industry publication website, one that targets a younger audience than you think your product fits. Only 20 visitors clicked-through, which sounds less successful than the other ad. But when you follow those 20 click-throughs down the sales funnel, you see that 15 ended up purchasing $1500 worth of product. Already, the ad has paid for itself 15 times over. You’ve also learned that perhaps a younger audience is more suited to this product. The ROI proves the vanity metric was quite misleading in this case.

Lean-startup pioneer Eric Reis, who coined the term vanity metrics, said, “The only metrics that entrepreneurs should invest energy in collecting are those that help them make decisions.” In other words, measure the things that will tell you if an effort was profitable so you know where to put your time and money.

While vanity metrics tell you nothing about your bottom line, ROI can help you determine whether it was worth spending your resources in a particular way. This is extremely useful on platforms like blogs and social media, where things are constantly changing. Using ROI as a litmus test, you can keep experimenting and making sure you’re using these tools effectively. Tracking a vanity metric like number of followers, which is likely to build over time regardless, gives you no indication of which experiments were successful and which weren’t.

Your resources are limited, so it’s crucial to evaluate your efforts with meaningful numbers that illustrate their effect on your bottom line. Calculating ROI might take some time—both in the few extra minutes to do the math and the amount of time that needs to pass before all the data is available—but that number will be infinitely more valuable to you than any vanity metric on your Google Analytics report.  

What metrics do you report to your team?



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The opinions expressed herein are those solely of the participants, and do not necessarily represent the views of Agile Business Media, LLC., its properties or its employees.

About Elizabeth Hines

Elizabeth Hines

Elizabeth is a content strategist with 12+ years of experience in content development, branding, marketing, and communications. As the creative/editorial director at Fronetics, she oversees all efforts related to content and creative assets, including strategy design and brand development.

She has written extensively about supply chain and logistics, and has developed content strategies across a number of verticals, including the B2B space. Prior to joining Fronetics, Elizabeth worked at Boston University, Prospectiv, and Cengage Learning.


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