Vanity Metrics Definition: Understand Real KPIs to Track Content Growth

Vanity Metrics Definition: Understanding the Real KPIs to Track Growth Through Content vs. Vanity Metrics

by | Sep 11, 2020 | Content Strategy

Ah, metrics.

Marketers love them – especially when they’re making a project or campaign look good on paper. After all, who doesn’t want glowing numbers to present to their client at the end of the week?

But savvy marketers know a secret: not all metrics equal growth. Some of them are even pure vanity.

Yep, I’m talking about vanity metrics.

What’s the definition of vanity metrics?

Well, imagine this: you’re an Instagram influencer with over two million followers – a success any way you measure it.

You decide to launch a clothing line to capitalize on your audience of millions.

You spend months planning, preparing, networking with photographers, and making everything perfect.

At long last, the day comes to launch your line!

You’re full of zeal and excitement – your promo posts get thousands of likes! Surely you’ll have hundreds of sales.

But two weeks later, you’ve sold a grand total of twenty (20) units, falling way below your goal of 500+.

Ouch! What happened?

You were tracking numbers that looked good — but told you nothing about what was actually going on. You couldn’t equate it to real growth. That’s the textbook definition of vanity metrics.

Learn more about the truth behind vanity metrics — with a real story based on what I just described above — in today’s blog.

Learn the truth about vanity metrics - numbers that look good but tell you nothing about what's going on in terms of real business growth - plus a real 'reader beware' story, now on the Write Blog via @juliaemccoy Click To Tweet

The Definition of Vanity Metrics

According to HubSpot, vanity metrics are:

“Data … and analytics that are satisfying on paper, but don’t move the needle for your business goals. They offer positive reporting, but no context for future marketing decisions.”

We could break that down if we wanted. A simpler definition of vanity metrics from Tim Ferris:

“Good for feeling awesome; bad for action.”

Vanity metrics are data and numbers that might be interesting, fun, or look good, but they don’t actually help you accomplish anything in your business.

Vanity metrics are data and numbers that might be interesting, fun, or look good, but they don’t actually help you accomplish anything in your business. They're the fool's gold at the end of the rainbow. Click To Tweet

They are fool’s gold – if you’re chasing them, you’re going to get a pile of dirt at the end of the rainbow. Why?

At the end of the day, they’re not telling you the whole story. In fact, as we see in the case above with Instagram, vanity metrics don’t tell you anything at all. (It’s a real story, by the way.)



Can you spot the vanity metrics she used to make her decisions? Sadly, many Instagram influencers fall victim. Source: Flawless and Brown

How to Identify Whether You’re Using Vanity Metrics

Vanity metrics are all over the place. They’re the marketing equivalent of those factoid listicles. Neat, possibly inspiring. Utterly useless in most cases.

But still wickedly irresistible.

Don’t get me wrong: tracking vanity metrics alone isn’t a bad thing. At the end of the day, knowledge is power.

However, tracking vanity metrics at the exclusion of actionable metrics can lead you to disaster. The glowing halo they can create around your idea or plans can blind you to the very real red flags or problems that exist – as our Instagram influencer discovered.

So, how do we identify which KPI is a vanity metric in the many that we’re tracking? Simple…

Ask Yourself: What Business Decisions Can You Make With This Metric?

Metrics are meant to do more than tell you about your business. They’re supposed to give you insights on what actions you can take next.

By definition, vanity metrics don’t because they don’t tell you anything really useful.

Let’s circle back to the Instagram influencer above to illustrate that.

On what metrics did the influencer base her business decisions? She used several vanity metrics:

  • Followers
  • Likes
  • Feedback from friends

Lots of followers and lots of likes seem like a good thing, right? Sure! And her friends were super jazzed about her new clothing line!

But what those metrics didn’t tell us? On closer inspection, a lot. For example, she probably never learned:

  • Who her audience was. Some suggested that her clothing line was off-market for her mostly male audience. (She needed demographics instead of likes and followers.)
  • Her true level of follower engagement. Some marketers commented that her engagement ratio was low for the number of followers she had. (That’s looking at likes per thousand followers.)
  • Anything about the product itself. According to her post, people she sent out promos to didn’t even share her or promote her new line. (The promos to share ratio alone tell us something was wrong with the product.)
  • Anything about the campaign itself. More than a few marketers pointed out that it was badly composed and executed. (Three posts don’t provide enough market data at all.)

Arii and vanity metrics

There were other red flags with the product and campaign that got missed because she was focused on vanity metrics. Source: Jack Appleby.

5 Vanity Metrics in Content and How to Use Them to Your Advantage

The Instagram influencer’s experience provides a salient warning against the dangers of vanity KPIs and metrics. Marketers of all stripes can take a lesson or three from it – especially those of us in content creation and marketing.

However, figuring out which KPI is a vanity metric is arguably easier when it comes to social media than other forms of content creation or marketing. Part of that is because social media is much more straightforward in many ways.

Here are five metrics that are most likely to be a vanity metric when it comes to content, and what you can do instead to capture the most accurate view of your brand’s growth.

1. Page/Post Views

Ah, views. We like knowing when something we’ve published is landing in front of lots of eyeballs. Yet, when we think about it, what do views actually tell us? Perhaps that we got our keywords right, or that we published at the right time of day. Pageviews tell us nothing about actual interest or engagement.

When It Matters: Content creators should track page or post views. An abnormally high or low number may indicate that something’s off with the keywords or targeting – but not always.

A More Actionable Alternative: Track conversions instead to get a better sense of how interested people actually are.

2. Likes & Shares

You know that warm, fuzzy feeling when someone validates what you have to say with a reaction, like, or a share? It feels good. I like it, too. However, likes and shares don’t indicate a commitment to convert – how many neat things did you heart on Instagram last week that you’ll never buy?

When It Matters: Shares can amplify organic reach. Likes or reactions can give you an immediate sense of your content’s performance.

A More Actionable Alternative: Consider tracking referrals, even if it’s as simple as how many users are tagging friends in the comments.

social media and vanity metrics

25 likes from a well-targeted readership are better than 25k likes from an uninterested public. Source: RootisTabootus.

3. Time on Page

We want people to do more than just click on our page in the SERPs – we also want them to stick around and read what we’ve got to say. That’s why we spend so much time on crafting exceptional quality content. But what does it mean when people are spending long periods of time on our page? It’s a good thing. Right?

That depends. People might be staying on the page because they’re engaged. They might be staying on the page because you embedded a video there and they’re watching it. Still, that doesn’t tell you anything about their actual interest.

When It Matters: When time on page is more than a couple of minutes – and combined with conversions – then you know it’s a high-performing page.

A More Actionable Alternative: Track engagement to get the most out of time on page – that means subscriptions, signups, or other lead conversions.

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4. Keyword Volume

Keyword volume refers to the number of searches for a keyword within a given period – in short, how many people are searching that keyword in Google.

If you’re sitting down to do keyword research for your content strategy, then a keyword with a large volume – a super popular one – must be a great choice, right?

Wrong. Volume doesn’t equal clicks – it also doesn’t guarantee that every click you’ll receive from that super-popular keyword will bring a qualified lead. It’s better to have less but more relevant traffic than it is to have lots of traffic from randos on the web.

When It Matters: Pay attention to volume with longtail keywords and super specific terms. A presence of relevant searches means a market opportunity for you.

A More Actionable Alternative: Lead generation and conversion. Your keywords can have low volumes, but if they’re returning qualified leads, then they’re more successful than popular keywords that aren’t.

keyword volume as a vanity metric

keyword volume - vanity metric

Volume is often not the full story with keywords. The longtail keyword “best buy portable air conditioner” has the highest volume – the greatest popularity – of similar keywords. But, from November to March, almost no one searches for it. Source: WordTracker

5. Follower Count or Subscriptions

So, you set up your social media. You link your blog posts. You’ve even got an email newsletter for interested people to sign up if they want. And guess what!

You’re getting followers and subscriptions.

What’s the problem here? They’re consuming your social media and your newsletter – not your actual product or service.

When It Matters: If your email newsletter has high signups but low conversions (or vice versa), then it may indicate that something’s broken. You can also track subscriptions in a given time period to get a sense of how well your message resonated.

A More Actionable Alternative: Track active users instead. People may be happy to consume your freebies, but your product’s success is only measured in terms of sales.

5 vanity metrics in content you should beware: ❌Page/post views, ❌likes & shares, ❌time on page, ❌keyword volume, & ❌follower count/subs. Click To Tweet

Bottom Line: Actionable Metrics Create Results

A lot of marketers will tell you to avoid vanity metrics like the plague. As I’ve shown here, they can and do frequently prove dangerous – if not deadly – when used to make business decisions. From the definition of vanity metrics, we can glean that these numbers are fascinating and fun, but they aren’t meant to be helpful. Instead, they’re meant to make you feel good about what you’re doing.

That all said, you can use vanity metrics to gain a deeper insight into the success of your business, content, or campaign. But you need to be smart and look beyond the surface of the shiny metrics to learn what’s really there.

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