How to turn vanity metrics into actionable metrics

Imagine you’re a fine art collector having framed work hung up on a wall in your home. You admire how beautiful your new abstract painting looks with your modern furniture — until the nails bend ever so slightly too much, and the entire frame comes crashing to the floor. Your art is damaged, there’s glass everywhere, and you’ll spend the next few weeks kicking yourself for the mishap and pulling shards out of your feet.

Vanity metrics are like framed artwork: The frame gets all the credit for making things look pretty, but it’s not actually the most important part of achieving your goal—in this case, to display your artwork on a wall. The nails, on the other hand, are literally doing the heavy lifting for your goal by keeping the artwork on the wall securely. When the nails malfunction, everything malfunctions—and you’ll find yourself picking up the pieces.

Marketers often find themselves fixated on vanity metrics that, like a frame, don’t play as important of a role in helping them achieve their business goals. Instead, marketers should prioritize actionable metrics that enable them to make meaningful changes to their strategy.

Vanity metrics vs. actionable metrics

If vanity metrics are frames, actionable metrics are nails — they’re what most significantly affects your ability to reach your goals. Most importantly, actionable metrics offer you insight into changes you should make and strategies you should continue that will actually have a meaningful impact. (Hence the name: Actionable.)

For example, consider perhaps the worst offender when it comes to marketing vanity metrics: Pageviews. You’re, of course, correct that pageviews are an indicator of increased brand awareness, but that’s about all you can learn from this metric alone. It’s crucial to dig deeper and find an actionable metric that gives you insight into exactly what is working, so you can put more attention toward that initiative.

The pageview metric has plenty of actionable metric counterparts that you can track, depending on your goals. If you’re interested in lead gen, you could pay attention to lead sources and mediums to determine which channels are contributing to a spike in pageviews. If you’re interested in measuring content quality, then time on page, bounce rate, and social shares are all great ways evaluate if your content is compelling enough to keep a site visitor’s attention or get shared with their network.

That said, every business has different goals, so it’s important to ask yourself the right questions to make sure you’re tracking the most appropriate, actionable metrics.

How to determine which actionable metrics to track

Step 1: Know your marketing goals

Establish marketing goals that are high-level so you can assign them actionable metrics that, in turn, provide accurate measurements. For example, improving social media visibility is a marketing goal, whereas social media engagement is a metric. Make sure that your goal is in fact a goal, and not just a metric in and of itself.

Some good example goals could be:

  • Improve brand awareness
  • Improve content quality
  • Improve SEO

And metrics to achieve those goals could be:

  • Increase new site visitors
  • Increase scroll depth
  • Increase ranking for a specific keyword

Step 2: Audit your current marketing metrics

Chances are you already have some analytics reporting in place that tracks key metrics. Many of those metrics are likely vanity metrics or metrics that aren’t the best way to measure your goals.

To sift through the clutter, make a list of every metric you’re tracking and run it through the following filters:

  1. What am I trying to measure with this metric and why?
  2. What does this metric tell me about my marketing efforts?
  3. How does this fit into my marketing goals?
  4. What changes (if any) should I make based on this metric?

As an example, let’s say you run a small marketing agency and determined in Step 1 that your main goal is to increase brand awareness. You measure this mainly by pageviews, so you could run it through the filter like so:

A) What am I trying to measure with pageviews, and why?

I want to measure how many people view my webpages because it is an indicator of increased visibility.

B) What do pageviews tell me about my marketing efforts?

This metric tells me whether or not my holistic marketing efforts are generating more webpage views.

C) How do pageviews fit into my marketing goals?

Since I care about increased brand awareness, pageviews is a proxy measurement for that goal.

D) What changes (if any) should I make based on the number of pageviews?

If pageviews are low, I might look into how well-optimized my page is for search or re-evaluate my social and PPC promotion strategy. If they’re high, I may create a list of qualities the page possesses and try to apply those same things to future pages.

This filter gets clogged at the final question: What changes should I make based on pageviews? If you can’t answer question no. 4 in particular, chances are you’ve got a vanity metric on your hands. In this case, pageviews could be a decent proxy for brand awareness, but it’s not actionable because it doesn’t tell you which specific marketing initiatives are contributing to the increase or decrease in pageviews. In other words, you can’t just note pageviews going up or down—you also need to find out how and why.

If you find your metric is, in fact, a vanity metric, you need to determine an actionable metric that measures the same thing but also offers insight into how to act.

Step 3: Turn your vanity metrics into actionable metrics

Below are some common vanity metrics and corresponding actionable metrics you can track in instead (or in addition to, depending on your goals). This isn’t an exhaustive list, so feel free to get creative or even do some custom reporting as necessary.

Vanity metric Actionable metric Why?
Pageviews Source/medium of site visitors, Social shares, Bounce rate Source/medium of site visitors tells you which channels actually get more people to your website. Social shares are a much better measurement of content quality: If someone loves a post enough to view it and share it, it must be particularly good. A lot of pageviews with a high bounce rate indicates something may be up with the content quality or website UX. Bounce rate can help you update content and website UX.
Time on site Time on page, Scroll depth Time on site is a finicky metric that can be misleading. Time on page, however, is a great way to gauge if visitors are actually engaging with your site content. Similarly to time on page, scroll depth can indicate if users actually read to the bottom of the page as opposed to just leaving their browser open and forgetting about the tab.
Social media followers Engagement rate Follower counts are worth noting, but not prioritizing—just because someone follows you doesn’t mean they engage with your content. Engagement rate is worth tracking because it boosts your SEO rankings in Google and the social platforms themselves.
Newsletter subscribers Acquisition path When you know which pages a visitor saw before subscribing to your newsletter, you can put them into a content specific campaign or get ideas for topics that may register best.
Email opens Email clicks Someone could open an email just to clear their inbox, but there is almost always intentionality behind a click. Highly clicked links can tell you what content is working and not working in your emails.
Free trial sign ups Free trial usage What good are 100 free trial sign ups a month if nobody actually uses the trial? Measuring usage can help you determine ways to make the trial experience better and increase free trial to customer conversion rates.
Phone number clicks Phone call sources and conversions While you can track total phone number clicks on your site in Google Analytics, using call tracking software like CallRaill will let you see which campaigns and channels generate the most calls and conversions.

To return to our example from Step 2, you could focus on the source/medium of site visitors instead of pageviews to measure brand awareness. If you ran it back through the filter, you’d have something like this:

1.What am I trying to measure with source/medium of site visitors and why?
I want to determine which channels drive the most people to my site because it tells me the best way to get more eyes on my brand.

2. What does the source/medium of site visitors tell me about my marketing efforts?

This metric tells me which digital and social channels are working and which ones aren’t.

3. How does the source/medium of site visitors fit into my marketing goals?

Since I care about increased brand awareness, the source/medium of site visitors not only tells me overall how many people end up on my site, but also where they tend to come from most often.

4. What changes (if any) should I make based on the source/medium of site visitors?

Depending on the number of visitors generated by each channel, I can allocate more resources to the most successful ones, and/or experiment with making the less successful ones more effective.

With an actionable metric like source/medium of site visitors, you get richer insight into your marketing success than you would by just measuring pageviews. It makes it easier to fine-tune your marketing strategy to be smarter and more effective.

When it comes down to it, turning vanity metrics into actionable metrics requires a simple reframing of how you measure marketing goals. By focusing on actionability, you’ll set metrics that best measure your business goals, better allocate marketing resources, and prove better results.