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    Categories: Best PracticesMetrics

The Tale of Narcissus: Avoiding Vanity Metrics for Content Analytics

"Echo and Narcissus" by John William Waterhouse Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This story was originally published on the Parse.ly blog.

Why do we want to know more about what our audiences read? Analytics and metrics provide us with a window into our success, a mirror to hold up and say: does this look as good as I think it does? But too much time looking in a mirror can be dangerous. Case in point: Narcissus.

“Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus lost his will to live. He stared at his reflection until he died.” (Wikipedia)

How can you and your team avoid Narcissus’ fate?

Making Sure Analytics are More than a Mirror

Ultimately, the information that analytics provide should move you to improvement – to action – not just to stare at a mirror, or in our case, a screen. It’s all about separating the appeal of “vanity metrics” from the strategy of applying metrics.

Example vanity metrics from Google Analytics dashboard.

There’s plenty of discussion online of what vanity metrics consist of, and many of the metrics Parse.ly, or any digital analytics platform, provides could be considered vanity metrics: visits to your site, page views, your shares on social media, and engaged time. One attempt we take to help users see past this is providing the correct context in the dashboard.

But to move beyond vanity to actionability requires commitment to one thing: connecting analytics to goals. The metrics themselves cannot be the end goal, they must be a means to something bigger — loyal readers, community impact, deeper understanding of a policy or topic.

So why look at analytics at all? Seeing growth in a number over time can be a useful benchmark – especially if it connects to targeted goals that have been set for your site. For example, Moz.com Founder Rand Fishkin admits he only looks at vanity metrics, but with good reason:

Rand Fishkin

“That’s not to say I don’t also have metrics that tie to conversion rates for email subscriptions, clicks to the Moz website, signups for free trials, etc. But honestly, I almost never look beyond the vanity metrics of clicks, traffic, retweets, shares, likes, and +1s. And whenever I do, I find the same story – those vanity metrics line up pretty well with the more sophisticated, more action-worthy metrics.”

What’s the danger of not lining up metrics with goals and outcomes? Metrics don’t change on their own, and without taking action on the data you’re seeing, you’re likely to continue seeing the same patterns. This frustration of not seeing the metrics has had some publishers question the value of an analytics system; without wondering if a better strategy or application would have helped those improve those metrics!

How to Set Site Goals Using Analytics

In our latest whitepaper, A Cheat Sheet for Digital Analysts, we walk through how media analysts and content marketers can create a data driven mindset within their team. There are three main steps we recommend in the guide:

  • Translate metrics into what they mean about the reader, and what that means for your content
  • Make data a conversation at your organization to inspire change, don’t use it as a lagging judgement of past work
  • Get agreement on goals across different parts of the organization

If you’re interested in trying any of these tips out to make sure that your organization’s inner Narcissus isn’t winning the battle of vanity metrics!

Clare Carr is Parse.ly’s Director of Marketing. She writes and speaks about all the ways companies can use digital analytics to improve their operations and reach their audience goals.

Clare Carr: Clare Carr is the Director of Marketing at Parse.ly, a partner of digital publishers that provides clear audience insights through an intuitive analytics platform. She spent five years as Director of Marketing and Online Operations at Greentech Media, the renewable energy industry's premiere information firm. Previous to that, she did digital marketing and business development at ThePoint.com, the precursor to Groupon. Originally from Ohio, she graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in Environmental Sciences.