If you work in the world of social media, or even just spend enough time on it to be knowledgeable, you’ve likely heard the term “vanity metrics”. If you haven’t, here’s an apt definition provided by ProductPlan:

“Vanity metrics are statistics that look spectacular on the surface but don’t necessarily translate to any meaningful business results. Examples include the number of social media followers or the number of views on a promotional video.”

While perception is often regarded as reality, more often than not, social media metrics (page followings, post engagement, video views) are not reflective of any real success.

Identifying Misleading Vanity Metrics

There are several ways you can identify vanity metrics being used by brands to inflate the perception of their worth. If you’ve got insider access to software such as Google Analytics, Facebook Business Manager, etc, you’re afforded a much more granular and accurate way to assess the ratio between social engagement metrics and actual success metrics such as website visits or cost per acquisition.

However, even without backend access to accounts you can still conduct some surface level detective work to identify when a business or brand is trying to come across as more than they really are. Below are a few examples:

  • You can use software such as Similarweb or Semrush to cross-reference the volume and engagement of website traffic against social media metrics. For example, you may see a brand with hundreds of reactions and comments on every post they make, but if that same brand’s website is receiving almost no traffic then the numbers are likely being inflated. However, with this said, it’s also possible that low traffic numbers exist for a reason. For example, in the circumstance where a company has just soft launched without any products available yet but want to boost their brand awareness you may see low traffic (on a coming soon landing page perhaps) but high social engagement due to awareness based paid media ads. It’s always important to contextualize things to make the best sense of the full picture.
  • Vetting the quality of the profiles who engage with social posts is a great way to validify the engagement numbers. Some things to look out for are accounts without profile pictures, strange names, multiple generic comments on posts and the “new” profile tag on Instagram. Scrolling through the reactions you’ll quickly get a general idea of how authentic the engagement is.
  • Comparing the ratio of video views to video engagements (likes, comments etc) can sometimes indicate bought views as opposed to organic views.. However, the caveat to this is that the video might be being used as a paid ad, with the aim to drive traffic links or build audiences. Thus, it’s important to cross-reference as many variables as you can to get the full picture.

Beware Of Scams

Most of the time, vanity metrics are relatively harmless, but there are some situations where scammers farm bot engagement to make something look legit. With the appearance of authenticity and success, they will then use phishing links in posts/bios to install malicious programs such as keystroke software onto devices. They may also be inflating the engagement with the intention to manufacture social trust. A good rule of thumb is to always double-check who/where links are coming from before clicking on them.

And remember, if something looks too good to be true on social media, it probably is!  

Vanity Metrics vs. Actionable Metrics

Userpilot defines an actionable metric as follows:

“An actionable metric provides actionable information about business performance and helps you form product growth strategies based on it.”

Some examples of actionable metrics could be activation rates, monthly recurring revenue, customer lifetime value, etc. In contrast with vanity metrics, these numbers not only paint a more accurate picture of the current level of success, but more importantly they afford you learnings and insights. With this said though, sometimes it can be valuable to weigh up vanity and actionable metrics against each other in order to contextualize further learnings about the way in which people engage with the business and what actions are most likely to lead to conversions. You may find there are correlations between variables that you wouldn’t suspect.

On The Other Hand

Post engagements, video views, and the like may not necessarily always translate to sales. For example, at a mattress company there are circumstances in which these metrics are not only helpful, but actually integral.

An obvious example would be influencers, who essentially make their business off of vanity metrics. An influencer without a large following or high levels of engagement on their posts will struggle to get brands to work with them, while the influencers with demonstrably passionate and engaged communities will find it a lot easier to get business. In contrast to this though, there are plenty of influencer campaigns that work on performance based metrics through affiliate marketing (influencer specific discount codes to track which personalities are actually moving the needle).

In Conclusion

The moral of the story here can be summed up like this: don’t judge a book by its cover.

There are certainly some great use cases for having strong social numbers and engagement with your brand across the internet, but these metrics don’t always correlate to sales. It’s important to keep this in mind when studying the competition, casually browsing the net, or even managing your own business. All variables should be viewed in context of each other in order to get a broad view of the full story.