Gini Dietrich

Vanity Metrics in PR May Be a Necessary Evil

By: Gini Dietrich | March 13, 2014 | 

Vanity Metrics in PR May Be a Necessary EvilBy Gini Dietrich

Earlier this week, Jason Falls – IABC conference head honcho, whiskey lover, and all-around fun Louisville host – wrote a blog post called, “The Death of Public Relations.”

I like Jason, but I saw that and got ready for a fight.

Then I actually read the post…and I agreed with him.

No, I don’t think PR is dead, but his point is the industry is at a cross-roads because, as a whole, we’re not so good at measuring our worth.

He says advertising equivalency and media impressions mean nothing and that we have to stop counting words and start making business sense for the CEO.


That said, I have a quick story to tell you.

A Quick Story

(Because I take after Clay Morgan and almost always have one.)

Last week, I got caught up with a former client (from my FleishmanHillard days) who works for an 80-year-old beverage company.

Throughout the years, she has made a name for herself in the company and recently was named director of corporate communications…a job she coveted when she worked in the test kitchen and was looking upwards at her career.

During our chat, we talked about measurement and metrics and what is baloney and what still works.

I mentioned the media impressions and advertising equivalencies so many of our peers still use in reporting to the executive team as one of those ridiculous things.

She said, “But Gini, it’s what they’re used to seeing so they ask for it.”

She said her CEO still takes those numbers into the board meetings so she and her team (which includes her agency) provide them. AND they provide the other stuff that makes business sense, in an attempt to educate him and eventually get him to stop asking for the vanity metrics.

Facebook likes and Twitter followers and LinkedIn followers and Google+ circles and YouTube subscribers are also vanity metrics.

But human beings love to see those numbers increase so we inherently create goals to do just that. Unfortunately, our clients and executives are not immune to wanting to see big number increases every month.

Same thing with media impressions and advertising equivalencies. It’s super impressive to see a company received 100 million impressions versus four new customers from PR efforts.

Is there a Place for Vanity Metrics?

I’m not defending the vanity metrics. We try to push all of our clients away from those things.

Shonali Burke and I had this conversation a year or so ago. She said,

Clients ask for media impressions and advertising equivalencies so I can understand agencies providing those metrics, but I would hope they also provide education on better ways to measure.

In other words, if your client wants those things, are you going to refuse and bite your nose off to spite your face? Or are you going to provide them and the other things that matter?

The idea being, of course, that if you do the latter, they eventually begin to see the vanity metrics are just that and stop asking for them.

Going back to Jason’s post, he said there really are only two solutions to this problem.

The first is that we educate even the tunnel-visioned tech-minded CEOs on the difference in direct response and brand marketing. But that’s a long and hard row to hoe. Sometimes, even after the education, they revert back to the Pavlovian response system and want to know the direct ROI.

The other solution is for the brand marketers to get way better and measuring their impact than they ever have been. Or at least savvy enough to ensure they’re tying all or part of their effort to a direct response mechanism.

What Do We Do?

We have to do both things you mention: Educate the business leaders AND measure effectiveness differently.

Unfortunately, there is always going to be the side of PR that is softer – the brand awareness, credibility, and reputation. You know if you have it, but it’s hard to measure directly to sales.

Then you have the other stuff – the owned content, the social media, and even paid stuff (sponsored content, for instance) – that falls under PR that can be measure to leads and new customers.

Integration is necessary. Education is important. Doing things differently is vital. And measuring to real business goals is critical.

Image courtesy of AscendWorks

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • Again, the ego plays an enormous role in people’s day to day lives. And if “vanity” metrics (along with the real, hard data, as you mention) makes someone feel good, and they enjoy seeing them and charting their growth, I don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s when vanity metrics become the be all end all that we start to have a problem.

  • RegisDudley

    The issue I see is that when you have goals related to vanity metrics, you have to achieve them in order to be considered performing well. The time you spend on achieving vanity metrics takes away from real achievement that can come from deeper, more meaningful measurement. Walking the tight rope between vanity and real measurement means that you spread yourself thin and therefore can’t achieve as much in either realm…

  • One of the most important parts of our relationship with clients is the education to why we are doing, or recommending what we are, and what the reports we send them mean. Vanity metrics aside, the biggest disservice we can do for our clients is not help them understand what it all means, and how it translates and supports their business goals.

    Further, although vanity metrics are not a good stand alone measurement, they do provide value within context of other data.

  • Like any metric, vanity metrics have their place. For brand awareness in particular, they’re a useful barometer of how you’re doing (social growth for brands new to social, comparative metrics compared to competitor activity, etc.)
    The ROI metrics come from a different place (at least, the financial ROI – social ROI is still ROI), but they can also be tied to vanity metrics (our 27% increase in Twitter activity led to three referrals and one sale).
    To say they’re useless is naive; to say they’re essential is also naive. 
    Like anything, you find the happy middle ground where they all make sense based on your current goals.

  • Blend and balance. 

    Vanity metrics are a starting point for a bigger conversation about measuring other more meaningful, critical metrics that connect to larger business goals.

  • jasonkonopinski  Hehe, for some reason your use of “blend and balance” reminded me of the “Misdirection” scene in Monsters University. 🙂

  • You can measure all of the vanity metrics with a bit of objective research and a bit of subjective valuing. You can find out how much a 30 sec TV spot costs vs the CEO getting a 30 second interview that you landed him.

  • Danny Brown This article paralleled a lot of my experience in contact centers. The contractor would want the contractee to report low abandonment rates and low average call durations BUT it is often the case w/contact centers that having a goal of “first Call REsolution (which takes long and makes avg call duration increase) pays off in the long run with less repeat calls and (ta dah!) happier customers who feel their issue was resolved more effectively.

  • biggreenpen Ah, that takes me back to my managing a call centre days back in the UK. 🙂
    Yes, like you say, the longer solution may not look great for reporting dropped call or hang time numbers, but they’re the exact kind of numbers that mean more to the customer.
    Which, at the end of the day, should be what it’s all about.

  • JasKeller1

    I want to give this post a hug when discussing it at a high level because it is so good. But somewhere deeper within the PR machine there is a structural problem with most agencies and in-house departments that is preventing measuring from entering the fold at a more advanced level; it’s a structural problem. 

    Agencies in particular are organizationally set up for account management – senior team members guide strategy and manage relationships and junior team members research and execute (I’m generalizing here, but bear with me). In this typical structure, many different tasks fall onto everyone involved – there’s very little room for specialization. 

    I think you can see where my logic is heading – no room for specialization = no room for measurement specialists, who would be able to really dissect and analyze and provide insights as opposed to metrics. When people have a lot on their plate (which practically describes everyone in communications), they tend to take the path of least resistance; in measurement, this path is marked with all kinds of vanity metrics. 

    I think this is where Jason Falls’s post fell a little short; he called out PR for using vanity metrics, but he didn’t really dive into the root cause (structure) so his overall argument and recommendation fell a little flat footed.

  • Excellent timing! Just yesterday I wrote on “impressions vs engagement” and wondered if I was the only one who saw this discrepancy. Glad to see forward thinking PR folks agree.

  • Agreed. Gonna plagiarize myself a bit, as I read and commented on Jason’s post. It’s not always a small minded PR, not the person w/ ‘soft’ skills that doesn’t know how to measure, or doesn’t see the value in measurement. It’s very often these very same PTB demanding results and ROI who want these vanity numbers, who think this is what generates success – and then refuse to invest in any true analysis or measurement.

    Awareness, credibility, reputation – those are three core PR tenet that can contribute as much to an organization’s bottom line, to its value as anything else. Brand X hotel doesn’t get away with charging 2, 5, 10x what Brand Y does because of FB likes or web content; it’s because they’ve built a relationship with their customers, a reputation around offering better quality/service, and they can charge for it. ITA we need to connect the dots, map that out for the clients and execs, certainly do our jobs to integrate and educate. For me that includes teaching that leads and sales are important, but not the only business goals that matter. There is more to a successful organization, and more that business communication – in the guise of PR and SM, as Employee Relations/HR, as Investor or Media Relations, as MarComm and CRM – can do. FWIW.

  • This is why it’s important to build a framework of metrics that all tie back to the communications goals. Vanity metrics play a role, but you can see all of measurable factors that are tying back to larger business objectives.

    I’ve also been known to keep a huge repository of brand engagements, so that people can see how conversations shift and what types of interactions take place and how those change over time/

  • jasonkonopinski i demand your metrics now!

  • belllindsay until you get ginidietrichin People Magazine no raise for you!

  • Howie Goldfarb belllindsay What Howie said.

  • belllindsay  I just had this conversation this morning. Someone in the group asked how important the big numbers are and why he shouldn’t focus on them. It was a really good discussion that finally ended in, “500,000 followers just feels good.”

  • RegisDudley  I agree. And I think it’s fairly easy to “measure” the vanity metrics because those things should increase if you’re focused on the real right goals.

  • LauraPetrolino  So do you agree or disagree with me?

  • Danny Brown  Amen.

  • jasonkonopinski  Sometimes on client reports (as you well know), we call them the necessity metrics…and then push to the other stuff.

  • Howie Goldfarb  But what about increases in fans and followers and traffic? Vanity because we like to see the metrics increase, but not super valuable to measure alone.

  • JasKeller1  Coming from the big agency world, I agree with you. I also have judged Silver Anvils and did a series of interviews at one of the awards ceremonies and I will tell you that ALL PR firms submit entries laden with increased Facebook fans and millions of media impressions. When I judged, I started out by saying none of those entries would be forwarded for an award…and then I realized I wouldn’t have put any forward.

    So, until the industry as a whole can figure this out, we’re stuck with some of the things that don’t really matter while we educate our clients into getting it right.

  • RebeccaTodd  It makes me a little crazy.

  • 3HatsComm  ” it’s because they’ve built a relationship with their customers, a reputation around offering better quality/service, and they can charge for it.”


  • JayDolan  I love that you keep that repository. Very, very smart.

  • JasKeller1

    ginidietrich JasKeller1  We’ll get there but it is tough – time and resources (and even professional backgrounds) are all challenges the industry is facing. 

    There’s also a business value argument that needs to be had – measurement is mostly considered a secondary tactic for many. It takes smart folks to see beyond the current project/issue to scope for measurement and evaluation in a robust way. 

    And it seems that measurement innovation and awards also don’t mesh – many of the larger entities out there with resources to really demonstrate insights via measurement seem to keep those strategies close to the vest.

  • JasKeller1 This is like market research when I began my career. Everyone knew they needed it, but it was outside of most professional’s expertise AND it was very expensive. We’ll get there…it just may take many years.

  • 3HatsComm  P.S. Is it plagiarism when you wrote it to begin with?

  • ginidietrich JayDolan  You’d be amazed at how many times I pull a screenshot out of Evernote of a customer being “ALL. CAPS. ANGRY.” to “OMG Thank you! :-D”

  • JayDolan LOL! I can imagine. Clients love that kind of stuff.

  • I knew you were going to write about this! I just knew it!  🙂 
    But you and Jason are both so right! It’s not in anyone’s best interest to argue with a client if they really want to see the vanity metrics. Over time, you should be able to educate them about how hollow and fruitless such metrics really are. But that can only happen after they learn to trust you. 
    No one feels they need the “education” in the beginning, but once they see HOW those metrics are pointless, only then can you begin to do your magic and have them focus on what really matters for their business.

  • RebeccaTodd   Can you send me a link? @JRHalloran is my Twitter handle. I’d love to read it.  🙂

  • ginidietrich not stealing from, repeating myself I guess. 🙂

  • JayDolan if ginidietrich bought facebook ads she would have an easy ROI number to figure out and can just present that as the whole social media strategy booked and done.

  • damn hippies!

  • Howie Goldfarb  That is perilously close to AVE, Howie. Please don’t go there.

  • Shonali what is AVE? 
    And there is a correlation…not exact correlation. Every event you can place a value on by getting the key people to agree what that value it.Even if that agreement is just ‘worth more than’ or worth less than.  It isn’t an accounting measure. It is just a way to justify resources. Because otherwise you are dead in the water. I can invest in a machine upgrade and give you exactly the amount of increased productivity we should get. So how do you prove PR should get the money instead of my assembly line? Because if you can show a higher return that is where CFO’s are conditioned to invest using Net Present Value and Internal Rate of Return the two golden formulas.

  • Howie Goldfarb Ad Value Equivalency.

  • ginidietrich oh yes you can not value a Like or Follow that is silly stuff and any executive who cared should be fired.

  • @jrhalloran I’m on the road so it’s still “in draft” (the notes section of my ipad) but if you fancy reading rough copy I can share it in email.

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  • ginidietrich LauraPetrolino  That’s what *I* was gonna say. 😉

  • ginidietrich It’s so TRUE though! It does feel good. And as someone mentioned in the comments above, it can illustrate brand recognition growth, higher visibility, and even – if the brand had a bad reputation let’s say, and now have recovered from that, it can show that quite clearly in the numbers. But sheesh, don’t hang your hat on them, as you say.

  • jenzings

    Okay, I’ve stewed on this all day.

    There is, in my mind, a distinct difference between vanity metrics and stuff that is just made up.

    Facebook followers, Twitter followers, etc. are vanity metrics. AVE, IMHO, is just made up. No one has ever, ever proven that a full page article has the same dollar value as a full page advertisement–at least not that I’ve ever come across (and how could you?). And, again, IMHO, the pass along multiplier is equally silly nonsense. AVE should die an ugly, horrible death, and it cannot happen too soon. It makes me all kinds of crazy to see people say “well, they ask for it so we provide it…” and then what? It perpetuates this cycle.

    I see nothing wrong in providing hard numbers like followers if that makes people feel good. But assessing a dollar value is what they really want. The only answer is to make it totally uncool to provide AVE, and focus on where we can really demonstrate a real, bottom line, dollar value.

    There are two tracks we can take: one, admit that some of this “stuff” just isn’t legitimately measurable, but that it works. This will take a boatload of charm to pull off. The other track is to set up programs that have measurement built in from the outset. I think a lot of the reliance on vanity metrics and AVE is that both can be pulled up at any point in a PR program but REAL measurement takes planning, baseline assessment, etc.

    It’s going to take a shift in mindset in the industry to get over this hurdle. I don’t think we get there anytime soon if we don’t make it clear what is not okay (AVE. Not. Okay.).

    This really is a burr under my saddle!

  • JodiEchakowitz

    Thanks for addressing this topic Gini. Educating our clients to think differently about measurement has been an uphill battle, but definitely one that’s worth fighting. We’ve tried to get them thinking more about measurement that’s in line with the concepts outlined in the Barcelona Principles. For example, we’ll evaluate success based on **metrics** such as audience reach, number of articles, share of voice, sentiment, key message alignment, expressed opinions of preference, etc.  We will often include vanity metrics (FB likes, shares, etc.) within these numbers as it is something our clients like to see. But then we go a step further and look at all the metrics in the context of **outcomes** such as visits to their website, queries from customers, RFI/RFQ, trial requests, sales, market share, etc. I’ve found that the CEOs are interested in this approach to measurement because it shows a direct correlation with their bottom line – which is something AVEs (in isolation) never did.

  • jenzings  I totally, wholeheartedly agree with you. With the exception of one client, we don’t report these “metrics” to anyone. And the one we do? We do it because his board wants to see them, but we also spend a lot of time educating them every quarter on what truly matters. Our goal is to have them stop asking for them by year’s end.

    So what do you do in situations like that? You can’t very well tell them you aren’t going to report on it, can you? I feel like that’s biting off your nose to spite your face. What’s the harm if you have employed exactly what you said – the planning, the baseline assessment – to get them where they need to be eventually?

  • JRHalloran  I agree…it can happen only after they trust you. The other thing I think the industry needs to do a better job of is educating clients on how long it takes to get media relations results, but that’s another story for another time.

  • jenzings

    ginidietrich The key for me here is that you have a goal for them to stop asking for it–I agree that it’s a (very) tough situation. As far as “what’s the harm”–for those who *don’t* have as an objective weaning them off of AVE, the harm is perpetuation of a false metric, and a depressed jenzings. 😉

    I know I’m preaching to the choir here–and, as I pointed out there are other “vanity” metrics that I actually can see some use for…AVE is just so incredibly frustrating to me. I guess I’m still astonished that it still gets asked for at all, it’s just so….made up. I mean, what if we started a metric that said an online article had the same value as a banner ad? I just can’t wrap my mind around how it ever became legit!

  • I always say that you should measure over your client’s head. GIve them the expected and the unexpected. That is how edcation happend. Vanity metrics can be correlated to outcomes.

  • kamichat  Love that – measure over your client’s head. I’m stealing it. Thank you.

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  • Here’s my challenge: There’s a lot of info on what metrics aren’t
    useful (and I agree with you on these, Gini, especially on advertising
    equivalencies – UGH).

    But there’s far less info on what metrics are useful.

    work for a smallish organization. For communications, I’m it. My boss
    wants hard data and I want to provide it to him. But, I need to measure
    across all types of communication (events, traditional press, owned
    media, social media) and to make matters worse, we’re not selling
    anything. I’m basically a community manager, and my job is to inspire
    warm fuzzy feelings. Oh, and it’s just one part of a very, very busy

    Digging through this mess to find appropriate
    metrics has been painful, and I’m hoping to pick up some specific tips
    on what to look for at SMMW14 😉

    I know what not to do. What I need is a viable alternative!

  • Kato42  I can help you! Let’s plan to set aside some time at SMMW, in between sessions. I’ll definitely give you some things to track.

  • You’re awesome, and I’m totally going to take you up on that offer. Thanks Gini!

  • ThePaulSutton

    I’m a bit late to the party on this one, Gini, but I completely agree. Also read that post by Jason and went through the same thought process (and meant to write a post, but never got round to it!).

    Only last week I had an open conversation with a major client (a large corporate) who essentially implored me to keep not only measuring vanity metrics like Facebook fans and Twitter followers, but to keep them increasing. He basically told me that even thought he didn’t believe in these as true measures and appreciates the direction we’re trying to lead them in (looking at metrics that have more value to them as a business), the vanity stuff is what the guys at the top understand and look for when it comes to social comms. They put pressure on him according to those metrics, which gets passed on to us.

    So yes, we can (and must) keep trying to educate clients and move them to more valuable measures, but until such time as there’s no longer a demand for vanity metrics they are, as you rightly say, a ‘necessary evil’. And there’s not a lot of point in fighting it in my opinion.

  • jenzings

    ThePaulSutton Regarding “not a lot of point in fighting it”–I have one observation. For those who are pressed to increase numbers of fans and followers–in fact are measured themselves by this metric–at some point those numbers are going to either really level off (saturation point reached) or go down (people who leave, join another social network, etc.).

    I guess one reason to push back, however gently, to wean companies off of these metrics and towards ones that really matter could well be self-preservation. Just a thought.

  • ThePaulSutton  Darn. We need to find something to disagree about.

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