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All is vanity

Written by Josh Russell on Tuesday, 09 October 2012. Posted in Technology

Being able to measure a company’s position in the market is a vital part of managing any business. But the best data isn’t necessarily the data that flatters your ego

All is vanity

Analytics and metrics are almost like a currency in their own right. Marketing departments for companies across the scale are as likely to mention the amount of traffic they receive as they are their turnover. When a project manager reels off the stats for their latest campaign, it’s very easy to get carried along by the wave of website hits, download figures and virality statistics. But even though the numbers may sound impressive, they aren’t necessarily a measure of success. Vanity metrics are exactly what they sound like; figures that paint a wonderfully attractive picture of a business without actually presenting anything of real substance.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to monitor your data. Without accurate tracking of the results of campaigns and your company’s growth, you’re left flying blind. Moreover, this sort of data is needed by investors and clients if they’re going to have any trust in your business. Unfortunately the temptation to take data out of context is often far too strong. Many businesses, upon seeing a leap in user figures, can’t wait to share the information; it’s less common for people to question what those increased user figures actually mean. Has there been a reciprocal increase in sales or has it led to increased revenue for your advertisers? While these figures don’t sound anywhere near as exciting, they have a concrete, measurable impact on your business and demonstrate that your increasing user base is resulting in more conversions.

Another classic example is that of raw page views. With the rise of blogging and the increased ease of building websites, the majority of people are aware now that the number of hits your website receives is relatively meaningless. Even looking at the number of unique hits from new IP addresses is misleading; it doesn’t take into account the multiple devices people use and doesn’t even come close to differentiating between meaningful activity and first-time visits that failed to convert to any long-term loyalty or results. 

So what about social media analytics? Obviously social media isn’t to be underestimated. It’s a powerful way to grow brand awareness and build your product up in the eyes of the customer. These days social media forms a vital part of a lot of businesses’ marketing strategy. And companies, understandably, want to be able to monitor the results, which, at first glance, seems to be pretty straightforward. There is hardly a lack of data to work from – not only do you have the cruder metrics such as Facebook page likes or Twitter followers, but networks themselves are wising up to the value of detailed analytics. 

Facebook, for example, provides ‘insights’, allowing businesses not only to see the total available market, the number of friends their fans have, but also their ‘reach’ – the number of people who saw content related to their business. Reach can even be broken down into content spread organically, virally and by paid-for initiatives. With a whole wealth of aesthetically pleasing charts, the insights provide lots of meeting-friendly data to demonstrate the effect of your various campaigns. You can see why it’s so appealing from a marketing perspective; everything is conveniently broken down into charts that show the demonstrable growth of your network.

But, unfortunately, it isn’t all that straightforward. The use of these analytics to monitor the relative success of your business misses out on one key point – a growing network doesn’t directly translate to increased conversions. In fact, it’s perfectly possible for an increase in @mentions or ‘people talking about’ your page to actually be generated by incredibly negative publicity. One only needs to look at the disastrously provocative article recently published by Newsweek on Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s escape from ‘Muslim rage’ – reaction to the article undoubtedly caused the publication’s @mentions to rocket. Unfortunately a cursory look at the hashtag #muslimrage demonstrates that increased activity on Twitter isn’t necessarily always a great marketing boon. The maxim that ‘all publicity is good publicity’ doesn’t hold if the increased activity is reducing your brand to a laughing stock.

Metrics are also, unfortunately, not above manipulation. Given how seriously a lot of organisations take analytics, the pressure can be on for individuals to boost their figures to add a patina of credibility that they haven’t actually earned. Followers and fans can easily be bought in the same way that suspect SEO technics can increase an organisation’s Google ranking, something that further undermines these analytics as a genuine measure of a company’s influence.

This is the key issue with vanity metrics. It can often be tempting to focus on completely on the wrong issue. For example, you may be seeing rapturous responses to your social media campaign – a competition to win an iPhone 5 might see your page likes rocket – but how many of these new fans will actually buy one of your products? Does taking the five seconds it takes to click a single link because they want to win a gadget necessarily mean that they will buy £500-worth of eyeliner, shower gel or condoms?

What can a business do to avoid slipping into the trap of analytical narcissism? Don’t expect your metrics to tell you more than they are able. Your total number of followers or how much traffic your website receives are useful metrics to know – but they can’t be used to represent the success of your business as a whole. Instead look to the more nourishing data to assess how people are making use of your services: the number of daily active users will tell an enterprise far more about their functional user base than the amount of activity on their social networks will. And don’t assume that more likes amount to more lucre.

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

As editor, Russell is the man in charge of properly apostrophising our publication and ensuring Oxford commas are mercilessly excised. Our digital doyen, he’s also a Photoshop Pro, a dab hand with InDesign and the man to go to if you need a four-hour soliloquy about the UK's best silicon startups.

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