Sara Nguyen My greatest career achievement was when I was recognized as "GIF Master" for my GIFs in the company Slack channel. A close second is that I've written over 600,000 words in the past two years.

What are vanity metrics? Examples and how to avoid them

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What Are Vanity Metrics? Examples And How To Avoid Them

Vanity metrics are exactly what they sound like — you think you look good but there’s actually no data to back up your claims of success. When teams focus on vanity metrics, they end up taking their product in the wrong direction. Yet, product managers and other teams frequently use vanity metrics because they’re easier to obtain and analyze.

But this has obvious issues. When managers aren’t using actionable metrics, they can’t accurately prove return on investment (ROI) or assess business performance. This can have disastrous results on a company’s growth.

Keep reading to learn more about vanity metrics, including how to spot them and what to track instead.


Table of contents


The problem with vanity metrics

Managers frequently fall into the pit of vanity metrics for a simple reason: it’s easy to gather vanity metrics. They are usually free, simple to obtain, and provide quick analysis. But speed does come at the cost of quality.

More valuable metrics, like ROI or customer lifetime value (CLV), usually involve additional time and resources to gather. Managers also need the skillset to analyze data and ensure accuracy, and many people lack this hard skill.

For these reasons, managers opt to use vanity metrics because it’s easier. That, or they lack the knowledge to find more actionable insights.

Vanity metrics usually share these characteristics:

  • Look good but aren’t an accurate reflection of business performance
  • Aren’t combined with a deep analysis of the full funnel
  • Suggest growth but have no data to back it up

What is the difference between vanity metrics and actionable metrics?

On the opposite side of vanity metrics, we have actionable metrics. The main difference between the two is the ability of the metrics to inform business decisions.

Another way to look at it is how your company responds if a metric goes up or down. For example, if you lose 100 followers on Twitter, your team probably won’t notice a significant impact. But if you lose 100 customers shortly after releasing a new product feature, this may trigger immediate action from your product team.

How to identify vanity metrics

Technically, any metric can become a vanity metric. It depends on your stage of growth, business goals, and other factors. Let’s review questions you can ask yourself to determine if a metric is worth measuring:

What business decision can we make with the metric?

Take a look at your metrics and ask if they will provide actionable insights that can help inform business decisions. If you can’t see how a metric will impact decision-making or guide a course of action, then it may need additional metrics to make it actionable.

Can you intentionally reproduce the result?

It may not be worth placing significant value on results you can’t replicate again in the future. Popular examples include viral moments or a random public recommendation from a thought leader. While they can certainly boost your metrics, your team also can’t depend on these factors to improve future performance.

Does the metric reflect reality?

Reliability and accuracy are the cornerstones of good reporting. For example, you can’t necessarily tie social media likes directly to ROI. You can, however, align it with goals like brand awareness or understanding your audience.

Is there a clear correlation between the metric and the goal?

You can’t report on your goals if you don’t have the right metrics to show results. For example, traffic sources can only tell you so much. When combined with a business goal, the traffic can reveal a story about how your business is performing.

Using SMART goals

Another method to identify vanity metrics is using the SMART method while creating business objectives. SMART stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based.

When managers create SMART objectives, they make it easier to identify which metrics would be most useful to determine if they met their goals.

Are vanity metrics always bad?

Vanity metrics have a bad reputation since they rarely provide you with actionable insights. While vanity metrics may give the illusion of success, they don’t show what changed revenue or where there may be a need for improvement. That’s why actionable metrics are often preferred.

But that’s not to say you should never use vanity metrics, they just need to be combined with more valuable metrics and paired with a business objective. Otherwise, vanity metrics can serve as a distraction from the real issues and successes of your product.

Examples of vanity metrics and what to track instead

When you spot a vanity metric, you need to dig deeper into your data and find more revealing metrics. You can find new opportunities by properly utilizing and analyzing your data.

Here are a few examples of vanity metrics and what you could do to turn them into actionable metrics.

Raw pageviews

Pageviews can turn into a popularity contest when not paired with other metrics. While you may be getting traffic, they don’t tell you where the traffic came from or if it led to sales. You should also track metrics like bounce rate, pages per session, and click-through rates on calls to action.

Running total of customers, purchases, and downloads

A running total reveals how many customers, purchases, or downloads you’ve had. But since it can’t go down, it doesn’t share any insights into how your business is doing. Instead, consider spend per order, renewal rates, time in software, or percentage of new/returning customers.

Social media followers

Having a significant following on social media can make users believe you’re popular. More followers could also mean you end up with a higher impression on posts. But this metric is easily manipulated since people can purchase followers or be followed by bots. It also doesn’t have any direct ties to ROI or sales.

You may benefit more by focusing on metrics like click-through rate on social media channels, the number of followers engaging with your posts, or sentiment analysis.

Number of new users gained per day

New users are always exciting, so it’s fun to share this metric and boost morale. However, it doesn’t show how long users stay active or how frequently they use the product. You won’t understand your new users if you don’t monitor their behavior.

Traffic sources

While where your website traffic is coming from is important to measure, it doesn’t always equal people engaging with your content. For example, Facebook ads could be your highest source of traffic, but your Google traffic could result in a higher conversion rate.

Conclusion

Data isn’t in short supply, but you need to use it wisely. Start by creating SMART objectives and then you can find actionable metrics to measure your progress. Vanity metrics may not need to be tracked, or they may need further data to prove any business value.

Actionable metrics may take more time and expertise to gather, but accurate and honest reporting is crucial to ensuring you can find the path to success and improvement.

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Sara Nguyen My greatest career achievement was when I was recognized as "GIF Master" for my GIFs in the company Slack channel. A close second is that I've written over 600,000 words in the past two years.

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