Tuesday 2¢ – Vanity Metrics

If you follow me, you’ll know that while at censhare I did a weekly column called Tuesday 2 cents, which was regular rant on something marketing related that got my attention that week and, if I was lucky, got a few heads nodding in our marketing community. Encouraged by some of my network, I’m resurrecting it here. This week; I talk about about vanity metrics. 

Vanity metrics have been a bug bear of mine for years, I was reminded of this particular itch by a couple of articles in my social feed this week and in this post I wanted to share an example that shaped my view on this. 

While I was heading a content marketing practice with the fabulous folks at D.C based Tahzoo, we had some lovely clients and one of them was a large financial institution, looking to promote their B2B trading technology products and services business. 

The CMO had a view something was wrong, but wasn’t sure what and I led the team that first did an audit of their marketing operations, assessing them against a maturity model and then we developed their content marketing strategy. 

We discovered that vanity metrics posed two challenges for this business, the first was that different teams had different goals, and the second, most fundamental, was that for certain parts of the business these vanity based goals, web hits specifically had zero correlation to business outcomes.

These folks are a stand out client in my career, (I daren’t say “favorite”, that would like choosing a child), but they were lovely people, a CMO open to change, understood he had a problem and engaged in the work, but most of all what we discovered was a perfect example of the folly of vanity metrics that had been bugging me for years.

Over the years, when consulting with clients or speaking at conferences on this topic, I often repeat the same joke – if you want more web hits, let’s train a cat to play the piano, video it and put it on your homepage. Guaranteed you will bust your targets.

Most B2B websites are not a contestant in a worldwide popularity contest, needing millions of hits for revenue. Depending on the size of the business, it’s goals, market and price point if the right 200 people showed up and 50 of them make a purchase that you can directly attribute to digital marketing, the VP of Sales would be ringing his bell and kissing you on the lips. 

Seth Godin calls this the “minimum viable audience”, our job as B2B marketers is not to let the people around the Sales Director’s Thanksgiving table know what the company he works for does, or even some random dude at a conference from a stand across the hall, but to persuade the right people to take an interest and talk to him.

“our job as B2B marketers is not to let the people around the Sales Director’s Thanksgiving table know what the company he works for does .. but to persuade the right people to take an interest and talk to him.”

Which brings me to the second anecdote from this client engagement: 

As part of our content audit we found some content that had very few hits in comparison to the rest of the content, which if you are following most content strategy methodologies, would make these pages a candidate for the content guillotine. 

But, when we discussed this content with the business unit, we discovered that they were responsible for a highly specialized product and set of services that earned hundreds of millions of dollars for the organization, disproportionally higher than the other business units. 

But, their audience was incredibly small, an addressable market that would definitely care if the content was not there. Therefore its value could be directly attributed to a business outcome, but its value was certainly not in web hits. 

And, by the way, you can imagine that by rewarding a marketing team for web hits, how much tender loving care that this “unpopular” content got from the web content folks and subsequently the view of that business unit had of their colleagues in marketing. 

For me, it’s about business outcomes and using appropriate strategies to reach these goals, a vanity metric like web hits is not a business outcome, it’s a technique within a marketing strategy that can help an organization reach its business goals. 

I bang on about ART (Awareness, Revenue and Trust) and each marketing decision should be weighed up against all of these goals, not just one. Appeasing vanity metrics tends to skew a strategy toward one (awareness), at the expense of the others. 

The example above shows how you could impact revenue, by only focusing on popular content, but popular content can also undermine trust.

To develop trust with content, it needs to be useful and represent an authentic point of view that you believe in and that your kind of people will subscribe to and engage with. 

Creating something useful and expressing a point of view requires organizations to understand and nurture a specific audience and create tailored, targeted and relevant content for them. Content that won’t be for everyone. 

This content will help you down the funnel, as the kind of people that engage with it at the top, will be more likely to convert further down, but its specificity, it’s appeal to one group (and therefore not another) will undermine its popularity.

It may not be the kind of content that will go viral or bust the web hits target this month, but it will deliver ART: 

  • Awareness in the right audience
  • Revenue from down the funnel conversions
  • Trust as the content will be useful and authentic

It’s about finding a balance, of being popular enough to grow the right audience, keeping it authentic and useful, not bland and popularist, with an eye on the prize of what you want the audience to do or think after they’ve seen, read or watched it.

Something that unless you are in the piano, kitten training or other kitten related business is not going to be delivered by Tiddles the feline virtuoso.