I came across the concept of “vanity metrics” for the first time the other day. It captured my attention. Was this an underhanded way of poking fun at our obsession with likes and friends on social media? The term seemed to be too mainstream to be the case! As someone interested in how social media can serve the specific mission of nonprofits, I wanted to better understand this concept.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines vanity as “an inflated pride in oneself or one’s appearance and as something that is vain, empty or valueless”. A metric is “a standard of measurement”. Accordingly, a vanity metric is an attempt to measure one’s inflated pride in one’s own appearance. Ouch. That’s got to hurt. Or does it?
I discovered the term in the context of blog posts on the topic of nonprofits trying to grapple with what constitutes successful use of social media. While boards of directors and those controlling the purse strings seem to view success in terms of an increase in “likes” and “traffic”, those engaged on the ground of the nonprofits know that more likes does not simply equal success. One article stated the conundrum simply: “How do we get our board or senior staff off their addiction to the wrong metrics, like views?” Vanity metrics are the simplest things to measure and quantify, but we should not stop there.
Beth Kanter, co-author of the book Measuring the Network Nonprofit: Using Data to Change the World (2012), argues that the onus is on you to show the connection between the metrics and what matters most to your nonprofit. To overcome what she calls the “trap of vanity metrics”, Kanter recommends that we begin by questioning our data with an open , non-vain (i.e. humble) mind. In front of the numbers, ask yourself : so what? And repeat this two more times. Saying So What To Your Data Three Times will help you go to the heart of the changes- both positive and negative- to determine as far as possible the lasting effects of them on your nonprofit. There is an uptick in Facebook traffic. So what? Is it significant? Did more traffic actually lead to more donations? Let’s take another example. Your nonprofit was mentioned on Twitter. So what? There was more traffic to your site. So what? Did the mention on Twitter which drew attention to your website actually cause anyone to stay a while and visit your site? Did anyone sign up for your newsletter? By engaging with your data, you can better show the relevance between what is vain or immediate and what is the lasting meaning behind it.
Picking up the same theme, Julia Campbell writes in How to Measure Nonprofit Social Media Success and Document Results that it is important for nonprofits to clarify the difference between vanity metrics and what she calls “goal specific metrics“. She recommends that goals specific metrics are decided ahead of time by your organization in three easy steps:
- Determine your specific social media goals.
- Identity the specific tasks you will do to achieve each goal.
- Write down the metrics that you will measure to evaluate the relative success of each goal.
If you can clarify what your nonprofits goals are for your engagement on social media, these will be more easy to evaluate when looking at the data. You and your board of directors will be less easily seduced by vanity metrics and more able to see what is going on beneath the surface where it really matters. As Jane Austen says, “Vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief.” The last thing we want is mischief, no one like trouble! So let’s be humble and inquisitive in front of our social media data.
Twitter: Someone likes you? So what! Confronting Vanity Metrics http://bitly.ws/ev2w
Facebook: 3 Tips to Dig Deeper into Vanity Metrics for Nonprofits. http://bitly.ws/ev2w