Last week at the movies, I heard the lady seated behind me exclaim to her partner.

“700,000 followers already!.. Wow!”

The producers obviously thought it important to include details of the debutant actor’s fanbase in the closing credits. Honestly, I did not think it was a big deal. If you can throw a few dollars to have “fans” receive you at the airport, then is it really that difficult to get a few more to “like” you online? I don’t mean to generalize, but I found that number a bit tough to digest. The young man was only a regional artist and barely a movie old.

Forget movie stars, even most company press releases these days have metrics splashed all over, in big and bold fonts: over 1 billion likes, 20 million visitors, 10 million page views, 15 million downloads. But do we know for sure if these metrics are a reflection of the firm’s business performance? Do these numbers confirm that their sales are skyrocketing? An app may get downloaded 10 million times, but would the same number qualify for its actual count of users?

In most instances, the answer is No.

Eric Ries, the founder of the Lean Startup philosophy, introduced the concept of ‘vanity metrics’. He defines vanity metrics as measurements that give ‘the rosiest picture possible’ but do not accurately reflect the key drivers of a business. The most common of these being Facebook followers, likes, registered users, Twitter followers, page views and downloads.

Vanity metrics are said to be the easiest to measure and are guaranteed to make companies feel good about themselves. The relevance of the metric is also dependent on the type of good or service. Ignoring vanity metrics completely would be foolish. But relying on them alone could prove risky. The reasons are plenty.

Poor indicators of performance

In one of my previous stints, while running a marketing campaign, we were thrilled at the number of times a newly developed marketing brochure was downloaded. This was within two days of updating this collateral on the website. The joy was very short lived when further research revealed that most of the downloads were by the employees and barely a handful by the target customers.

Misguided decisions

A friend of mine and his team at work took the decision to extend their ongoing marketing campaign by a month, based on their 80% email open rate. They were convinced that this was the right direction. When the campaign did not generate adequate responses even after the stipulated period, they were utterly disappointed and discontinued the activity. Only after two failed attempts did they realize that they were relying on the wrong metric.

When a customer opens your email on his/her device, it does not mean that they have read it nor does it indicate that they are interested in your content. Measuring click-throughs or landing page sign-ups may have been more beneficial.

Quantity and not quality

Assume that I spent five minutes more on your website than your competitor’s page. It could be because I stepped away from my desk to make a quick phone call while leaving the browser open. Even If I did visit your site 55 times, it may only be of limited value. The next visitor may visit once and buy more goods than I ever planned to. Keeping tab of the site visits alone may prove to be a futile exercise in the long run.

Time consuming and expensive

It is definitely important to get the word out, but all your resources need not be pooled into getting more likes and followers. Let’s not forget that everyone who likes your page need not buy your product. Hence it may prove worthwhile to channelize your efforts towards getting people to buy your good and not just stop at liking your page. Once your business goals are clearly defined, the trick is to narrow down metrics which are aligned to these goals.

The right metrics, when genuine (not aided by click farms), can prove to be indicators of improvement and positive consumer behavior. Are you using the right metric to track your marketing efforts?