The ugly truth about vanity metrics: they matter

Shares, followers, views and the rest have more meaning for marketing effectiveness than ever before

July 3, 2017

Vanity Metrics

Vanity metrics are the Phil Collins of KPIs. For a while, the world was talking about them, quoting them, comparing them. Then, all of a sudden, they lost all credibility. Today, whenever anybody wants to show how credible they are on marketing ROI, they start by rehearsing the standard line about how lacking in credibility vanity metrics are. It’s like Oasis and The Beautiful South lining up to take potshots at one of the bestselling artists of all time, back in the 1990s.

The standard line goes something like this: vanity metrics (likes, shares, followers, downloads and page views are the usual line-up) can’t be linked to any meaningful business goals, aren’t actionable and therefore aren’t relevant. If you mention them in front of a CMO or CEO you will be laughed out of the room. If you want to be taken seriously as a marketer at boardroom level (and don’t we all) then you need to ditch this childish stuff. If you want to be seen as a thought-leader on marketing metrics and analytics then the same applies.

I’m writing this post to argue that this ridiculing of vanity metrics has gone too far – it’s become a bandwagon that people jump on without thinking. It’s got to stop. Not just because it’s lazy – but because it’s increasingly wrong. The attitude that vanity metrics are just a worthless distraction is becoming a marketing myth – and it’s a very prevalent and counter-productive one.

The quiet comeback of vanity metrics
It starts with the assumption that, just because the CEO won’t be impressed by vanity metrics, these metrics have no value. That’s crazy logic. It’s the equivalent of claiming that, just because most drivers of new cars never bother to check their oil levels, it really doesn’t matter at all whether the car has oil in it or not. Your CEO is not there to micro-manage the specifics of how content marketing or social media translate into results that he cares about. That’s your job. And it’s a lot easier to do with a more nuanced approach to the value of ‘vanity metrics’.

The fact is that most of the criticisms leveled at vanity metrics are less and less valid today than they were even just two years ago. Quietly, and unnoticed by bloggers trotting out the same line time and time again, vanity metrics have been staging a comeback. They’re arguably more relevant to your objectives – and therefore more credible as numbers to track – today than they ever have been.

Vanity Metrics’ identity problem
When it comes down to it, vanity metrics get hammered for being not quite one thing or another. On the one hand, they are top-of-funnel metrics that aren’t representative enough to reflect broader brand awareness. On the other hand, they are measures of engagement that aren’t precise enough to be of value – 100 shares or 1,000 page views could mean anything if you don’t know who’s doing the viewing and sharing. And what does a few hundred shares really tell you about general awareness levels and how they will translate into revenues?

Why the value of vanity metrics is changing – especially for B2B
What though, if the size of your target audience isn’t in the hundreds of thousands – but instead in the hundreds or thousands? What if vanity metrics weren’t just abstract numbers but could be linked to data on who is engaging? What if vanity metrics actually increased reach and awareness? That’s the reality today.

Vanity metrics always had greater value for B2B marketers like me because several hundred or thousand views on a piece of content often represents a very significant slice of the target audience for that content. As a result, they give a pretty meaningful sense of the levels of relevant awareness that a particular piece of activity is generating. As B2C digital marketing strategies become more precise and data-driven, the relevance of vanity metrics increases there too.

Integrating vanity metrics into the full ROI picture
Advances in B2B marketing analytics are building on this by demonstrating how downloads and website visits translate into leads, conversions and revenue. Through tools such as conversion tracking, marketers gain visibility into the quality of the leads that engagement generates – and the flow-through of these leads into new business. If you know the rate at which downloads or views on a particular piece of content translate into eventual new business conversions, then those downloads and views become relevant and actionable. They have a clearly defined purpose and they shouldn’t be dismissed as vain or distracting.

The criticism of follower numbers as a metric seems particularly wide of the mark for B2B marketers. Smart B2B content strategies increasingly recognise the value of an owned audience, whether followers or subscribers, who have put their hand up as interested in your business and its content. The opportunity to speak directly to these people without paying a media platform for the privilege is not to be underestimated. Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute argues for building entire business strategies around it. He makes a compelling case for subscribers to a newsletter, for example, being more likely to convert and more likely to become loyal customers on an on-going basis. The number of people deciding to follow Coca-Cola on Instagram may have no real significance in the overall scheme of that brand’s sales – but if you’re selling complex enterprise solutions to a specific sector, with conversion values in the tens of thousands, then there’s nothing vain about earning several hundred extra followers on LinkedIn.

How vanity metrics drive reach and awareness
It’s not just the ability to link vanity metrics to business outcomes that increases their value. They also make an increasingly direct contribution to reach and awareness. And nobody seriously questions the value of step changes in brand awareness for a business.

Shares contribute to increased reach in two ways. Firstly, they are a great indicator of a high engagement rate for content, which also drives organic search rankings. No CMO worth their salt should need persuading of the quantifiable value of appearing on page one of Google.

Secondly, shares contribute to reach directly – and to an extent that B2B content marketers are just starting to appreciate. We recently conducted analysis of the impact of LinkedIn’s employees sharing on our own branded content on LinkedIn. The results were astonishing. We shared 123 pieces of Marketing Solutions-related content with our employees, who shared those 123 pieces a total 4,290 times. That may not seem a significant number in itself. However, we could also track the on-going results of those 4,290 shares. Between them, they increased the aggregate reach of our content by 15 million – and resulted in an additional 44,360 engagements. There’s a definite, quantifiable, tangible value to such sharing. When you understand the multipliers involved you can link shares to likely increased reach – and you can link that reach to a likely impact on awareness. It’s not vain if you can prove why it matters.

In defence of vanity
I’m not writing this post to argue that all the criticism of vanity metrics has been misplaced – or that you should now elbow out other KPIs and put shares and page views at the centre of your strategy. However, in dismissing vanity metrics out of hand, B2B marketers are missing out on valuable sources of insight that have a very real and increasing impact on their business success. The more you integrate these numbers into a fuller understanding of how content is performing, the clearer their value becomes.