What Are Vanity Metrics?

February 21, 2019

Red herrings in marketing

My personal pet peeve, are vanity metrics. Simply put. Vanity metrics are any reported KPIs that are meant to inflate or mislead. And when marketers do it it's just the worst. Because the victims are usually small business owners who are pursuing their dream, working their a%#es off, exhausted, desperate, and vulnerable. Like when 'gurus' sponsor ads with a headline claiming "See how we increased this brand's engagement by (cue fire emoji) 72894X!!!!!" It's just messed up, because if you were truly successful, you wouldn't really be using fire emojis desperate to churn through small business owners browsing through Facebook. But I digress.

So how do we identify vanity metrics?

1. Metrics that are easily manipulated

It costs an average $11 per 1000 impressions or $11 CPM on Facebook. Say you hire an agency. The account manager is really warming you up. He's 6 slides out of 7 into the PowerPoint, and locks eyes with you. "And buddy, not only are we the real deal but we're gonna get you engagement from the Very. First. Week. With your budget of $500 we're gonna get you 10,000 engagements!"

Let's quickly break this down. Your pitch is not lying to you. But he's also not being completely honest.

The key word here is engagements. First of all there is controversy around how Facebook calculates engagements. For example with images, they count image clicks as an engagement and for videos, video views longer than 3 seconds are considered engagements. There is good reason for this because it broadens your re-targeting (out of the scope of this post). But real social engagement, the stuff that gives your post and your page social proof are comments, reactions, and shares. Why is this important?

Because it's so freaking easy to generate video views and photo clicks. And while platforms are trying to fix the accidental clicks/views phenomenon, you really can't measure the quality of an ad with these metrics included.

Facebook Unintentional Clicks

They are easy to manipulate. Everyone who has boosted a post knows how easy it is to spike 'engagement' and yet when you look at the post, you wonder why there are 3 comments and 1 like. It does feel good to report on vanity engagements. But the shots of dopamine wear off quick when you see no growth to your business bottom line.

In the example, with $500 you are generating around 45,000 impressions. Assume a frequency of 1.0 and you've essentially reached 45,000 users. It's so easy to generate CPVE (cost per vanity engagement) as low as $0.03/VE (or less). That's over 16,000 vanity engagements. And you would think I'm a genius. But literally that's just the basic expectation since it's more a function of the platform rather than the performance of your content.

When you measure real metrics, like social engagements (comments, reactions, shares) you will see fluctuations that correlate to the actual quality of the ad and somewhat (I say this carefully) to your business bottom line. And that's just one example of many.

2. Metrics that don't help your business goals.

You are marketing for a reason. Maybe you are starting a new business, launching a new product, optimizing profitability, entering a new market, growing market share, brand awareness, and so on. There are an appropriate family of metrics for each set of business and marketing goals.

In the example with vanity engagements, maybe that works for brand awareness. Any broad reach campaign where you just want to saturate your target audience, boost frequency, and stay top of mind, then vanity engagements are important to track. But again, when you are a small business owner, and you are playing on the margins, where profits are the difference between dinner on the table or not, we can't really be wasting our time there. So what do we want to look at?

An example of a good metric, in that case, is ROAS. Simply let's say you spend $500 on a campaign and through analytics you determine that you generated $1500 in sales, just take your Sales/Spend, which is 3 in this case, and put the fancy 'x' that digital marketers are crazy about these days (X-men, X-factor, we are so cool X), so it's 3x. The inverse of that, Spend/Sales gives you Ad Cost Margin, which in this example is 33%. Meaning you have about 66% after advertising and before other costs/expenses. Quick tid-bit the industry standard seems to be 4x these days on your ad-buy.

3. Metrics that are logically flawed.

Now, this isn't really that the metric is flawed, but the analysis could be. Digital marketing today is basically statistical modeling and analysis to optimize performance. This is true for platforms like Facebook, who use data to increase metrics such as 'time on site' and other KPIs to stay relevant, and for smart marketers who deduce growth opportunities for their clients. But it's hard. Because it's math, hardcore math. Setting up all the data nodes across your marketing channels, the website, CRM, POS, and wherever else takes skill, care, and precision to setup properly and to test.

The draw for digital marketing, is that anybody can do it. But it's still marketing. Knowing how to post on social media, any millennial can do it. But knowing how to add real value to a business, you need a good marketer.


Don't be afraid to ask why.

To recap, there are three basic categories of vanity metrics: easily manipulated, not performance related, and logically flawed. And never be afraid to ask. Sometimes some marketers feel the need (even though I see no excuse) to paint a rosy picture. It doesn't make sense because it can only hurt to exaggerate the truth.

Marketers should embrace clients as partners. Solve the intelligence and data issues. And collaborate with your client. Brands know themselves better than anybody! Provide the intelligence so that less time is wasted making decisions and more time is spent growing.

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