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Getting Impressions vs. Leaving One: How Vanity Metrics Can Mislead Strategic Decisions

By Bethany Johnson on September 12, 2018

A few months ago, I was enjoying Digiday's Making Marketing podcast when the guest that day, the former CMO of Hewlett-Packard and recently announced Facebook CMO, Antonio Lucio, raised an intriguing conundrum that is likely familiar to many marketers working in this data-driven digital age: "We don't want to be in a situation where we become data rich, insight poor."

He and the show's host, Shareen Pathak, had been discussing the two ever-growing datasets available to marketers-consumer information and marketing performance metrics. Lucio went on to say that tomorrow's most successful marketers will be "deeply embedded in analytics and curious about new tools, but at the same time, they'll need to own the skill of synthesis through the ability to capture all that, and translate it into actionable words."

In a way, there's a sense content marketers must use data to serve two masters: our target audience, and the business' stakeholders. Despite the many measurement tools available today, assessing both consumer needs and key performance indicators is still a huge challenge.

In other words, many marketing teams are data rich and insight poor. With so much information at our fingertips, it's far too easy to get overwhelmed by the figures and forget to consider the real people and behavior that they represent. We don't want to find ourselves buried in cluttered, "data-driven" dashboards and miss the one or two small (but pivotal) pieces of information that can make all the difference.

For marketers who fear they've got all the right reporting tools, but are perhaps not paying attention to the right values within these reports, here's how to determine and act upon the metrics that actually matter for your brand.

Impressions Aren't Always That Impressive

dancers on a stage

Image attribution: Michael Afonso

For content teams, success is often evaluated on the performance of the content they publish, but that content is too frequently judged against misguided parameters. Astute practitioners know that the biggest numbers are rarely the most telling.

Recently, the CMO of GE, Linda Boff, told Business Insider's Tanya Dua that impressions are a poor measurement of content success. "I think impressions are just empty calories most of the time," she explained. Last year, when discussing the measurement of content performance at BI Insight, she said impressions are a form of "success theater." In other words, they're figures that boost morale temporarily but don't move the needle on established marketing goals.

"What bothers me about impressions is I literally have this image in my mind of something just bouncing off, right?" laughs Boff. "There's no stickiness. There's no sort of sense of 'I want to be here,' no sense of intent, high value tasks, or engaging in content."

Most marketers would agree that the most valuable brand-customer interactions are those that foster long-term loyalty and encourage returning subscribers who repeatedly engage with a brand's content. However, in many companies, exposure, reach, and impressions are ironically still the go-to measurements for defining the success of many digital assets.

What Are Vanity Metrics?

The term "vanity metrics" appeared in marketers' vocabulary around 2010, when teams realized web traffic, social media followers, and likes didn't always affect revenue. In fact, some channels could be expensive outlets that returned nearly nothing. Perhaps sizeable follower counts and views were the best way to ease the pain of realizing a message didn't translate to monetary or emotional profit.

Another common belief is that vanity metrics are simply those that most platforms supply. Since they're easier to observe, they fall under the "vanity" label in contrast to more time-intensive, expensive, penetrating analyses. This perception stems from the slightly baffling conclusion that the more effort that goes into obtaining a number, the more business value it has.

In either case, the "vanity" moniker is a bit harsh. More realistically, obsessing over the wrong numbers is just a misstep. Caring about impressions doesn't make a marketer vain, especially if brand awareness is your goal. What many marketers get wrong when they hear someone like Lucio or Boff discuss performance analytics is assuming that most people are already very aware of the brands those experts represent.

If that were the case, of course impressions would be a superfluous measurement. But if you're a newer, unknown entity trying to let the world know you exist, then impressions may be the perfect objective to suit your needs when you're still starting to build an audience.

General Electric and Hewlett-Packard can afford to scoff at impressions, since most consumers are already "impressed" by these behemoth, long-standing industrial icons. So keep in mind when you're launching a business or a content brand-there's nothing wrong with strategizing to attract a dazzling number of eyeballs. Digital views alone won't transform your brand into a headline-maker, but at least when you do offer your target audience the gift of the right content at the right time, you won't be a stranger.

Metrics That Matter

Based on the clarification above, here's a new, more accurate definition of vanity metrics: any marketing measurement that doesn't serve your content's original business goals or inform future course changes. Eventually, your goals will mature, and you'll need to seek metrics that offer insights on repeat visitors or illustrate shifting trends in consumer behavior.

Important user behavior measurements for marketers to examine include the following:

  • New and returning users: It's human nature to value an exciting, new visitor over a returning one. However, a long-term relationship with your audience is much more valuable than a fleeting surge of traffic.
  • Unique visitors: Not to be confused with unique visits, this is how many distinct individuals access your site's content at least once in any given time.
  • Pageviews: This figure represents the number of times a particular page was requested. Keep in mind, this number grows every time the same user accesses the page.
  • Page depth: This is the number of pages an average user visits per session. It's particularly helpful if you're working on extending the duration of your users' sessions. It indicates your ability to serve audiences topics they're most interested in (and able to consume).
  • Bounce rate: The percentage of users who only visit one page per session.
  • Time on page: Are your site visitors slowing down to consume and digest the case your building? Or are they just scanning subheaders and bullet points to find what they're looking for? Again, it's tempting to assume a higher average time on page is always better. But if your goal is to deliver something quickly, and then move people along, there's no reason to be discouraged by a shorter report here.
  • Channel source: Want to know where your visitors found your content and clicked through for a visit? Here's your intel. This metric can tell you which social channel, platform, or discovery method is working best to drive audiences to your content. Remember, though, that many factors contribute to a well-performing outlet.
  • Organic traffic: This is a great measurement to determine how well your keyword strategy and site optimization is working. It's the number of visitors who found your content based on a keyword search in Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc.

observing brand performance

Image attribution: Freddy Marschall

Another important category to include in your reporting and marketing strategy evaluations is engagement measurements. Engagement metrics offer insights into the varied responses your audience may have as a result of your content and allow you to better ideate future content. These metrics include the following:

  • Social likes and shares: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, and Snapchat are the most popular social platforms, and each one caters to different types of content consumers. Many a marketer has been pleasantly surprised by an unexpected boost in traffic when a post resonates with one of these online audiences and earns some influential likes and shares.
  • Comments and mentions: When a user comments directly on your content or tags your brand on social when mentioning your work, another level of engagement has taken place. Whether favorable or critical, you've evoked a response, and your audience is now investing their own mental calories to articulate that response. Plus, they're opening themselves up and risking judgment (professional or otherwise) based on their public remark.
  • Re-publications and backlinks: Authoritative backlinks and well-done re-publications offer many benefits in particular for brands concerned with boosting how their content ranks in online search engines.
  • Conversions or new leads generated: This number indicates how many visitors opted to exchange their contact information for more of your content. This could occur through a demo request, e-book download, or newsletter subscription. "And again, I would say [. . .] if somebody takes another step or a parallel step and they engage by reading, by asking for information, by saying you can contact me, by giving up their email address, that's pretty great stuff," says Boff. "I'll take that to the bank every day."

Earlier we established that any metric can be valuable when correctly applied to your specific content marketing goals. That begs the question, then, what are your content marketing objectives?

If they're short-term objectives (and there's a strong case to be made for strategic short-term goals), then you'll see a lot of emphasis on pageviews, impressions, reach, and social likes. If your goals are longer-term, and if you want to build your own addressable audience, then you'll see a harmonious balance where every key dataset is considered, and priority goes not to the largest number, but instead to the one that supports those long-term objectives.

Boff says marketing teams should focus on performance indicators that show a user's behavior change or intent to engage further. "If we're driving people to read a white paper, or sign up in a contact form, or watch a video, those are really valuable for us," she said. "Those are tangible. They're hard hitting. Said in a much higher-level way, it's engagement."

To learn more about how technology like Skyword360 helps brands understand and utilize their performance data, schedule a demo.

Featured image attribution: Clem Onojeghuo


Bethany Johnson

Bethany Johnson is a multiple award-winning content marketing writer and speaker. Her work empowers marketers to ditch interrupt advertising in favor of original content that converts passive readers into active followers. Thriving brands like Tom's of Maine, MasterCard, ADP, Fidelity and the Content Marketing Institute currently rely on Bethany's fresh style to connect with audiences daily. As a consultant, she combines simple change management principles with her insider knowledge of freelancing to show traditional marketing teams how to flourish in today's gig economy. For more, visit