In an advertising agency, having a good idea isn’t enough. You also have to demonstrate that your thinking caused your client’s cash register to ring.
Proving your ads actually rang the register, however, has historically been a difficult exercise -- one requiring deep expertise in research, statistics, and business analysis.
Unfortunately, in lieu of doing the necessary measurement work, lots of marketers are taking the easy way out by relying on “vanity” metrics. This laziness is particularly evident in the digital space where over-simplified, easily digestible numbers (like YouTube view counts) have essentially become a metric of success. But the truth is those vanity metrics don't really mean anything.
An Experiment in Vanity Metrics
To illustrate the inherent flaw of vanity metrics, we at ad agency Solve created a four-minute blank white video and uploaded it to YouTube.
No sound. No animation. No movement. Just four minutes of pure emptiness.
We then got our blank video over 100,000 views simply by spending $1,400 on YouTube’s TrueView advertising platform.
That’s it. We literally bought viewership for 1.4 cents a view.
Crossing one million views, the unofficial line that signifies a major victory for most brands, would have required nothing more than the willingness to spend $14,000.
And that’s not all. Our modest investment generated a slew of “engagement” metrics that added even more texture to our illusory impact:
On average, viewers watched 61% of our video, with more than one in five completing it.
In total, the video received nearly 265,000 minutes of attention.
Even without a call-to-action, our video earned 1,957 clicks, achieving a better than average click-through rate of 0.86%.
It’s true -- nobody would argue that getting our blank white video 100,000 views accomplished a meaningful business objective. But that’s kind of the point.
The Problem With Vanity Metrics
You could swap in any video, any brand, any objective, and we’d be able to spin a dazzling PowerPoint fable with elegant charts, eye-popping numbers, and poetic proclamations. Oh, the engagement! Oh, the dwell! Oh, the buzz we achieved!
But despite the narrative, despite the numbers, we accomplished nothing. Absolutely nothing.
This lack of accomplishment is not an indictment of YouTube or its TrueView advertising service. We at Solve, along with many others, have used these platforms as they were intended and achieved bona-fide business objectives.
But the seductiveness of vanity metrics has been particularly insidious to marketers increasingly in search of a quick fix and a sound bite. Worse, it has given rise to a cottage industry designed to help brands “hit the numbers.” Want to buy Facebook Likes? Twitter retweets? Website traffic? Virtually any metric that serves as a proxy for campaign success can simply be purchased on the open market.
The inherent vagueness of vanity metrics further dilutes their usefulness in measuring impact. For example, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter each have different standards for what constitutes a video “view” on their platform. The more loosely a view is defined, the more of them a service can promise when pitching for advertising budgets.
All of that said, vanity metrics aren’t entirely bereft of value. In many instances, they’re all we have. But it’s critical to establish exactly how these metrics will correlate to the real business goals you’re trying to achieve. This means you need to be exceedingly careful with how you benchmark. You want to compare your efforts to competitors who have created truly great work -- not those who were simply willing to spend $14,000.
As marketers, legitimately measuring the results of what you do is hard work. But it’s worth it. After all, your job is to actually change the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of your audiences. If you are content merely with the appearance of impact, you have failed.
Originally published Aug 12, 2015 12:00:00 PM, updated July 28 2017