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benefits of vanity metricsVanity metrics are frequently criticized in public relations and marketing circles. You would think that they are accursed numbers that lead to horrible death.

Vanity metrics stroke the ego but reveal little or no meaningful information and accomplish nothing, the critics say. Facebooks likes are a prime example, but social media shares, pageviews, registered users and anything else that fails to provide actionable data are among the critics’ targets.

Vanity metrics make you feel like you are accomplishing something, but they provide little insight that helps increase revenue or improve a business. Marketing folks use them to inflate their egos – and their clients’ egos — and to present a deceptive image of a successful business. That’s what critics say. However, some PR and digital marketers defend vanity metrics.

Easy to Obtain and Understand

Vanity metrics are easy to understand and obtain, while actionable metrics are difficult to collect and interpret, argues Rand Fishkin, founder and former CEO of Moz. Although he can access more business-oriented metrics, he says he mainly examines clicks, traffic and social media shares. Those vanity metrics tend to correlate with email subscriptions and free trials. They help him understand what types of posts interests his audience.

“They bias me to action vs. analysis,” Fishkin writes. “It’s worked for a number of other bloggers and social media addicts I know, including plenty who you’d definitely assume ‘know better’ than to use vanity metrics.”

If vanity metrics help you become a better content producer and social media marketer, don’t be deterred by their simplicity, he advises. The caveat: Make sure you can obtain actionable metrics like conversions and revenue and at least occasionally compare those metrics to vanity metrics.

Good Leading Indicators

Vanity metrics can serve as good leading indicators, argues Mike Cohn, founder of Mountain Goat Software. They can indicate if you are achieving progress. Lagging indicators, in contrast, indicate if you have achieved your goal.

“Just keep in mind that they don’t measure what you really care about. They merely indicate whether you’re on the right path,” he cautions.

The real danger of vanity metrics is that they can be gamed. Companies can buy social media followers and website traffic that will never translate into revenue.

Vanity can buy you time. PR and content marketing success requires time, but clients and corporate executives can be impatient. Favorable vanity metrics can keep them content until you achieve business-oriented objectives, says Doug Kessler, co-founder and creative director of Velocity Partners

An Early Warning Signal

Vanity metrics can also serve as an early warning signal. If social shares and followers are not translating into achieving your business goals, you can reexamine your strategy.

They can also scare competitors. “A million YouTube views is sure to get the wind up your arch enemies’ backsides,” Kessler says. They will tell their bosses that “it’s just a vanity metric” but their bosses don’t understand measurement, so they’ll pressure the marketers to do stupid things — like chase vanity metrics at the expense of market share.

The problem is that stupid or dishonest people use them to hide facts. If you’re neither stupid nor dishonest, you need not fear vanity metrics. “You only have to keep an eye out for con artists and morons waving ‘likes’ in your face,” Kessler says.

Bottom Line: Although PR and marketing charlatans have given vanity metrics a bad name, the much-maligned metrics do have their uses. Although they can be misused and misunderstood, they can provide guidance that helps PR and marketing understand if they are making progress toward their goals. The danger is focusing on vanity metrics at the expense of actionable metrics.