Mirror, mirror, on the wall, are vanity metrics the worst of all?

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, are vanity metrics the worst of all?

Claire Walker

Claire Walker

Last month Yogendra Vasupal, the founder of Stayzilla, announced in a blog post he would shut down all operations – despite having recently raised $33.5 million. The honesty and reflection in Yogendra’s blog post is a lesson to many. In the post, he openly admits that focusing on irrelevant data and metrics was one of the main reasons Stayzilla failed:

"The initial 7 years were all about having negative working capital, positive cash flow and a sustained ability to fund our own growth. Those were the only metrics we tracked. In the last 3–4 years, though, I can honestly state that somewhere I lost my path. I started treasuring GMV [Gross Merchandise Value], room-nights and other ‘vanity’ metrics instead of the fundamentals of cash flow and working capital."

We read new stories every day of how companies focused on X to overachieve on their targets, or how the latest trend will be a “must-do” for your organisation. The danger in all this information is that it is easy to lose sight of what is really important.

What are the equivalent vanity metrics in PR and comms?

As professionals working in an ever changing and increasingly digital industry, our campaigns and client programmes are overrun with more data and metrics than we can ever make proper use of.

Just because a metric exists (and may have worked for someone else), does that mean it is worth the investment of your time and resources to measure it? What is most important?

Getting lost in vanity metrics

We have a plethora of metrics to choose from: share of voice, likes, impressions, click-throughs, followers…  and the list goes on. The challenge is separating the metrics that are important to your organisational objectives over vanity metrics.

You need to ask yourself: “does this metric help me make decisions? When I see this metric, do I know what I need to do to get closer to my business goals?” If you find yourself answering “no” to both questions, you are looking at a vanity metric.

Vanity metrics seem important but at the end of the day are superficial and have little—or at worst, a negative—impact on your objectives. Whilst the figures in vanity metrics can give the appearance that your business is doing well, they don’t give useful insight that will help you grow your business. For example, metrics such as AVEs, re-tweets or likes can be tracked for benchmarking purposes, but are not necessarily useful for measuring whether your campaign is making a real impact on your business. If you can’t link your metrics back to your business objectives, using additional time or resources on them will hold you back.

Media ‘hits’ and impressions: big numbers, negligible insights

Traditionally, the success of PR campaigns has been measured by the number of media ‘hits’ and impressions (audience numbers for a media outlet). However, as the media landscape has evolved—from disappearing media outlets to evolving habits of information consumption—these numbers are often no longer fit for purpose.

Does knowing that millions of readers skimmed the headline of an article give you insight on whether your PR campaign has made real impact? Does the number of media ‘hits’ translate to more business opportunities? Whilst these numbers can be large and give you a sense of achievement, they may not necessarily (or at least, not on their own) help you make better decisions for your business.

So, what other metrics can you look at? You can map traffic spikes to your website before and after spikes of PR activity. You can measure whether an article placement drives your target audience to interact with your business, whether this is sharing articles about your brand on social properties, signing up for your blog, downloading your gated content or requesting more information about your product. Looking at these metrics over—or in addition to—impressions and ‘hits’ can give you better insight on whether your campaign activity is making impact.

The danger of using share of voice

Share of voice is a metric that focuses on the frequency that your organisation is mentioned (whether across social media, news outlets, TV, etc.) compared to your competitors. For many marketers and communications professionals, this metric would equate to audience preference and trust.

However, there are a few key issues regarding share of voice. To track your organisation’s share of voice against competitors with any thread of accuracy, you will need to enlist in expensive services that use sophisticated AI algorithms and other language processing technology. And even with these tools, the numbers you are left with are often not accurate enough to have real insight! And more worryingly, it is easy to manipulate share of voice figures. For example, Twitter bots have been deployed to increase chatter about a brand or public figure—while this tactic can technically boost how often your brand is mentioned over competitors, it doesn’t increase preference or trust.

What would be better to measure instead? You should focus on quality over quantity, as well as whether the messages you want to convey have truly infiltrated your target audience. Therefore, track whether your brand’s key messages are conveyed across media placements, social media interactions and blogs. The messages that resonate better and are understood by your core audience will be more impactful.

What’s fair and what’s not?

With so many things to consider, how do you ensure your communications strategy doesn’t fall prey to vanity PR? There are three simple rules:

  1. Communications objectives need to focus on business objectives, whether this relates to increasing profit or acquiring new customers.
  2. Don’t get distracted by metrics or trends that aren’t relevant to your objectives.
  3. Experiment and tweak your activities. Technology and user habits are constantly evolving. How you measure the success of your communications activities today might not be helpful tomorrow. Continue to question everything and evolve.

Focusing on the latest buzz metrics or tactics, without a clear line to how it will benefit your organisational goals—as we have seen in Stayzilla’s case—is a sure route to extinction. While data, analytics and measurement are increasingly important, it’s equally important to focus on the right ones. By honing in on what is real and relevant to your organisation, you will ensure you don’t operate your business with a false view of success.

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