Most successful marketing teams have one thing in common: they focus on the right metrics. Because: if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there, right?

Still, I see many marketing teams and experienced marketing leaders get this painfully wrong. Defining the wrong success metrics will not only hurt your direct business results in the short term, but it might also demotivate your best marketers since they have to report on metrics that don’t matter as much.

In the 12 years that I’ve been in marketing, I’ve been in many meetings where the wrong metrics were put on the screen. Sometimes because that person didn’t know any better, sometimes to draw the attention away from the underlying business results.

I’d like to take the opportunity to point out a few of these vanity metrics, hoping that I can save at least some of you from going into meetings where someone is reporting on these irrelevant metrics.

General – website visits

Probably the most high-level metric in this list. While it obviously makes sense to keep track of the number of visits you’re generating to your corporate website, it tells you very little about the effectiveness of your marketing efforts. It’s not only a vanity metric, it’s also a lonely metric. It has little to no value if it’s not used in combination with other dimensions.

Some slightly better examples:

  • Visits per source/medium ( or paid, owned, earned)
  • Visits per (sales) region
  • Visits per page type (commercial pages vs. blog content vs. help center vs. …)
  • Visits per device type

I can give numerous examples of cases where the overall site traffic went down, but the business impact was going up. Traffic going to different pages, coming from better-targeted ads and a different phase of the buyer journey. Comparing those numbers too much is pretty useless.

General – Number of leads & Cost Per Lead

A tricky one.. or at least one that not everyone will agree with. There’s a big risk in using the number of leads and Cost Per Lead as the final marketing KPI. For several reasons.

If you don’t have very clear company-wide definitions of a lead, marketing departments might get ‘creative‘ and also include leads that are less qualified to make sure they hit their target.

In the end, your lead targets are based on the historical performance of your sales team. You calculate backward from your revenue targets, the closing rate of lead to customer, the average deal size & determine how much leads you need to generate to close X amount of sales. So if you just use the number of leads, you also assume that there’s nothing that could change in the lead to customer ratio.

Imagine your sales team being understaffed or more senior people getting replaced by less experienced sales reps. That means you’ll need more leads of the same quality to generate the same amount of customers. Or maybe you generate the same amount leads of the same quality, but with a lower average deal size.

This is not “a sales problem”, it’s a company-wide problem that you need to tackle together with the marketing team.

You’ll lose track of how the marketing department is really going if you just look blindly at the number of leads.

General – Bounce rate

A real classic, this one. There are many things that can go wrong when reporting on bounce rates. What you have to keep in mind is that bounce rate is – always – secondary to conversion rate.

Let’s imagine having 2 different landing pages for a webinar subscription page:

  • Page 1: bounce rate of 40% and a visit-to-customer (or lead) conversion rate of 2%
  • Page 2: bounce rate of 85% and a visit-to-customer (or lead) conversion rate of 5%

Which one would you prefer? That’s right, the one with the highest conversion rate, obviously.

Typically if you create more aggressive lead generation templates, you’ll see that both conversion rate & bounce rate go up. Which makes sense, because you’re making the page more ‘clear’, in a way.

Or maybe the bounce rate goes up because you’re scaling the volume in a successful campaign.

Google Adwords – Quality score

Let’s move to more specific channels, such as Google Adwords. While the quality score of a keyword is indeed an important factor in how much you’ll end up paying to get that visitor to your website, it’s again a secondary metric. It’s a means to an end, but not the actual end goal.

Since the quality score is on keyword level, and even medium-sized accounts can easily carry up to a few thousand keywords, this also means that you’re focussing very hard on something very small.

Focus on the conversion rate (to lead & customer) instead. If you improve those, you’re making an impact on business results and that keyword quality score will follow eventually. And if it doesn’t, that’s also fine.

Google Adwords – CPC

Another example of a metric that is both a secondary and lonely metric. Just like the number of visits, this is one that always needs to be combined with another dimension:

  • Campaign type
  • Device type
  • Product/service type
  • Sales region

Even then, it’s still tricky. You might be bidding higher than a few months back because your campaigns have been performing well. Or you might have lowered the CPC, because your campaign was limited by budget and you wanted to get more traffic/leads/customers for the same money.

So again, a higher or lower CPC doesn’t learn you anything about the performance of a channel or campaign.

Google Adwords – Average position

“We need a high average position, because <insert something remotely branding related here>”

Not. True. Trying to be in the first x positions in the paid search results is a terrible KPI, making average position an even terrible metric to report on. Not only will it make you focus on optimizing your campaign in the wrong way, there are also a lot of better ways do work on your brand awareness.

SEO – Visits

There are several things that are wrong with this metric.

First of all, you want to measure the impact of your SEO efforts based on business impact. Vistis do not equal impact. Preferably you measured SEO leads that converted to a customer, ideally tied to actual won revenue.

A classic mistake is not to differentiate between branded and non-branded traffic/leads/revenue. The efforts you put into SEO, should reflect in a higher non-branded return. Not separating this from your branded return, could result in taking an increase in branded searches (through an above the line campaign, for example) for a successful SEO strategy.

While this has been made more difficult by Google not providing you with the exact search query anymore, there are still ways to come up with some kind of segmentation. You could differentiate based on the page types, for example. While traffic coming to the homepage is most likely branded, a user landing on a product or service page, is likely to have used non-branded keywords. Not 100% conclusive, but it might already give you a better idea of the real ROI of your SEO efforts.

How to spot other vanity metrics?

Let’s start with defining a vanity metric first. If a metric goes up or down and you can’t tell for sure if it will have a positive or a negative impact on the business results, it’s a vanity metric.

As a general rule of thumb to spot these metrics: if you can double the metric in 1 day by making 1 change, it’s probably a vanity metric.

Some (I admit, bold) examples:

  • Cost per lead: need to lower the CPL quickly for that month? So many options! You can buy bulk lists of leads, allocate some of the budget that was spent to ‘awareness’, or my all-time favorite: change the definition of a qualified lead.
  • Average ad position: want a higher average ad position? Just double the maximum CPC bid. You’re CPL & CaC will skyrocket, but hey… -> vanity metric
  • SEO visits: need more SEO traffic? Just switch of your Adwords branded search campaigns. Or if you’re lucky, you might even have a radio or television ad running this week! -> vanity metric
  • Number of backlinks: 10.000 crappy backlinks by tomorrow? Just check Fiverr -> vanity metric
  • Open rate: using subject lines with words as urgent, severe, issue, exclusive, … can easily double your open rate -> vanity metric
  • Click through rate: by making the content of the email more vague, you can get more people to click through to the landing page because they need more information to understand what you’re actually offering -> vanity metric

This all sounds too familiar.. what should I do?

  • If you’re just starting out as a marketer and these metrics make up for the majority of your reporting, that’s fine. Those metrics will suffice for most of the conversations and day-to-day meetings that you’ll be having. Just focus on getting a better understanding of the business impact of the metrics you report on.
  • If you’re a marketing leader and members of your team are currently reporting on these vanity metrics, you should spend more time educating them why other metrics might be more meaningful. Show them cases where the operational vanity metrics have different business outcomes than you would suspect at a first glance. Teach them to scratch beneath the surface.
  • If you’re a CEO and your marketing leader is currently reporting primarily on these metrics, you should probably start looking for someone more senior. Remember, you hired a marketing leader to get this stuff right for you. If they can’t get the metrics right, there’s probably other stuff going wrong too (which you won’t discover through this article).
  • If you’re a board member or investor and these are the numbers the CEO is presenting you during board meetings, then either they’re trying to hide poor business ROI of the marketing efforts, or their marketing exec has no clue what he/she is doing. Worrisome, either way.

Don’t hesitate to reach out in case this article gave you a slightly uncomfortable feeling in your stomach because it reflects a big part of how your reporting is going today. I’m happy to have a chat and help your marketing and leadership teams to focus on the growth metrics that really matter.

Sven De Meyere

Author Sven De Meyere

Founder & CEO of Calypsus

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