Vanity vs. Actionable Metrics: Are you tracking the right stats in your business?

You know the rush. A guest post you’ve written goes live on a huge site, you finally launch the product you’ve been working on for months, or an older article of yours gets Gizmodo’d.

You watch your traffic spike and you can’t peel yourself away from the analytics for the whole day.

“Look at all those visitors!” you yell to your significant other as they feign interest.

But what really matters during these big days?

What metrics and stats should you actually be tracking and which don’t mean jack squat? (Hint: Traffic doesn’t matter as much as you may think.)

In this post we’ll make sure you know the difference between vanity and actionable metrics, which ones you should track, which stats really matter to the bottom line of your business, and share a few of our most important metrics.

Vanity vs. Actionable: What’s the difference?

Let me start by quickly defining the difference between vanity and actionable metrics in my own words.

Vanity metrics: Numbers or stats that look good on paper, but don’t really mean anything important.

Vanity metrics are dangerous.”

~ Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup

If you get caught up tracking things that don’t really matter you’ll look back after a few years and see how much energy you wasted maximizing stats that don’t matter.

Actionable metrics: Stats that tie to specific and repeatable tasks you can improve and to the goals of your business.

If a metric isn’t actionable and you can’t do anything to make it better then why are you tracking it?

Now, this next sentence may go against a lot of advice you’ve heard around the blogosphere, but hear me out.

The number of your visitors, subscribers, and followers are often meaningless.

They aren’t completely meaningless, but they aren’t what you should be spending the majority of your time or energy on.

Worried that you don’t have as many Twitter followers as the next person? Don’t be. Heck, you can become Internet famous for $68 without ever existing.

This is one of the reasons why we quit posting our monthly traffic reports here.

By focusing our time and energy on vanity metrics and then sharing them with you we were doing the exact opposite of what we are trying to do here. Instead of helping you focus on the strategies and actions you can take to build a successful and honest online business we were distracting you with numbers, charts, and graphs that were educational, but weren’t even the actionable metrics that we were tracking day to day.

Don’t get caught up playing the endless and fruitless game of tracking vanity metrics.

Don’t get caught up playing the endless and fruitless game of tracking vanity metrics.”

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Goals Before Metrics

Before you figure out which metrics you should be tracking, you need to determine what the goals of your site and business are.

Tracking metrics that aren’t aligned with your goals is a fastlane to Failureville.

As we’ve mentioned before, our goals at Think Traffic are:

  1. Earn enough income to support everyone who works for the business comfortably (we have specific numbers behind this, and you should too).
  2. Have fun and do meaningful work.
  3. Satisfy our customers and help them accomplish results using our solutions.

Once we knew what our main goals as a company were, then (and only then) we could determine which metrics we should track.

(Read this post to see why these are our three goals and which metrics we track for the each of them.)

Which Metrics Matter for a Business or Blog

As you mature as an entrepreneur you start to see metrics you used to focus on don’t matter nearly as much as you used to care about them.

Focusing on the wrong metrics for too long is dangerous. It is one of the biggest reasons people fall into the blogging trap.

Here are some examples of the different types of metrics that typically matter to you as you progress through each stage of entrepreneurial maturity.

  • Infant: traffic, followers, subscribers, reviews, social media shares
  • Adolescent: # of sales, revenue, conversion rate, time on site, customer satifaction
  • Mature: profit, retention length, churn rate, revenue per customer, costs of good sold, impact

What metrics you should be tracking in your business really depend on your goals, but here is an example of some actionable metrics that we track for Fizzle:

  • Current Active Members
  • Monthly Active Revenue
  • New Members (Past 30 days)
  • Members Lost (Past 30 days)
  • Monthly Churn
  • Retention Rate
  • What Link Members Signed Up From

There are other things we track in Fizzle too, but those are the main metrics we keep an eye on day to day using Geckoboard.

What metrics are you tracking right now that you need to stop? Which metrics aren’t you tracking that you should start to? Let us know in the comments below this post.

Further Reading: Vanity Metrics vs. Actionable Metrics by Eric Ries on the 4HWW Blog

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  • Amal Rafeeq

    Vanity metrics really are dangerous…
    Once again you really made it informative Caleb. Kudos.
    But you used to crack so many jokes back then. What happened? :)

  • Mark Ferguson

    My blog is very new and I love checking my stats, but I have no commercial applications to my blog yet. However, the actual research and connections I have made from my blog have helped my business immensely.

    My blog helped me put my big goal to purchase 100 rental properties down on paper and work through it. It was also cool sharing it with the world and seeing all the encouragement.

    Even if I never make a dime off advertising or product my blog has been well worth the knowledge I have gained.

  • David Veldt

    Excellent advice, Caleb. When working with clients, it takes a lot of energy to talk them away from vanity metrics. I’d like to throw another one in the ring: keyword rankings. Too often people get hung up on ranking #1 on a keyword that actually provides little to no value. It’s something that I admittedly ranted about on my own blog a couple weeks ago.

  • JCov

    Whoops! I’m an Infant all day long! I appreciate your list of the three main goals that you should identify first. I need to start there and mature what I’m tracking to at least the adolescent stage! I am going to check out your “Measure What Matters” post as well. Thanks for such an informative post I’m clearly going to need to bookmark and come back to. All Love! xoxo

  • Tom Ross

    This is absolutely perfect for me, and something I’m only recently focusing on in a big way. My blog gets a lot of traffic, and does support me, but it’s out-performed by countless blogs/sites with a fraction of my audience. Traffic really is for the most part meaningless, what counts is the bottom line, impact and audience connection.

  • Sabel Harris

    Thanks for breaking it down even further with the different stages of infant, adolescent and mature. I think it depends on the product you are selling, what stage it’s in, price points, your customers and like you mentioned your own goals — all determining what metrics you are measuring in your growth to your own “adulthood.”

  • Matt Giovanisci

    Great article, Caleb!

    I look at my Google Analytics at least once a day. I have a dashboard set up where I can see my stats from the day before. I look at: unique visitors, time on site, page load speed (for SEO), Top Pages, Top Keywords and bounce rate.

    I have a seasonal site, so this is my time to shine in the world of vanity metrics. However, when it comes to conversion rates and other actionable metrics, I’m afraid I fall short. One of the only actionable metrics I look at everyday is how many people sign up to my mailing list.

    I don’t sell any products directly, they are all affiliate products. My only goal right now is to bring more traffic to my website because that means more sales. Although, I don’t have any metrics to tell me if I could be getting more sales by changing my design or layout, or creating more content.

    All I know is, when I create a blog post and promote it, I get a surge of traffic.

    The metrics you mention…

    Current Active Members
    Monthly Active Revenue
    New Members (Past 30 days)
    Members Lost (Past 30 days)
    Monthly Churn
    Retention Rate
    What Link Members Signed Up From

    …are exactly what I would measure if I was selling a service, but I’m not. It’s just a blog, chock full of info and affiliate products.

    I would love to get some insight on what type of metrics a site like mine should be looking at.

    Happy Swimming!

  • Alex

    Thanks for the perspective. I think the 3 goals you listed for Think Traffic are a great idea for any business, on or offline. Thanks again…Alex

  • Daniel C Townsend

    I find if I check my blog’s stats to often it stresses me out. It takes a lot out of my to NOT check them but in the long run it’s better for me. It’s so easy for my to get worked up about who’s seeing the blog or how many subscribers I have. Great post!

  • Matt Higbee

    Thanks for the perspective.

    I do find myself fighting the desire to just look at visitors to sites. I have to make an effort to really at the goals of a website. Some sites may want to increase requests for proposals while others only really want to look at who signs up for an email list.

    I am going to definitely put more focus on metrics which matter and actually lead to revenue like revenue per customer and retention rate.

  • Bob Straub

    Great post Caleb!

    I’m definitely guilty of this and never really thought about it. I’m so grateful you’ve pointed this out and then offered some great advice on what to switch your focus to.

    What do you believe is the most important factor to watch on a new site?

    I’m leaning towards bounce rate or actions per visitor.

  • Gerri @ Ninetynineways

    This is the year that I stop just doing things without having set out clear goals and hence something to measure against. This post has given me some inspiration and some food for thought on refining my goals and metrics. Many thanks!

  • Zack

    I’ve noticed that I’ve stopped coming to ThinkTraffic because of the large font size. For some reason it makes me not want to read the posts.

  • Hugh Culver

    Great perspective Caleb. Thanks for reminding me that what numbers I watch is important. I’m going to have a chat in our office.

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  • Michael


    So good. It’s so easy to measure the wrong things. It’s easy to miss it too. Especially when we’re convinced we’re measured the right things. Then get lost and feel frustrated that we aren’t making any progress.

  • Tony Khuon @AgileLifestyle

    Great reminder. This is definitely something I will be working more towards in my blog’s second year. I’ll admit that I’ve fallen in love with my site’s pageviews stat, and I refresh it all the time. It’s probably a vanity stat, but I like that my readers are clicking on multiple articles per session.

    When my first eBook launches later this year, I will keep an eye on actionable v. vanity.

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  • alicia-joy

    Truth! I am sure most of us in the blogosphere are guilty of this at some point in time; checking stats fiendishly…almost like our lives depend on it.

    I literally had to put myself on a stats diet once. Committing to only checking a few times per week and only tied to certain goals I had set in analytics. I actually scheduled it on my calendar as a way to tell my brain “it’s ok. we have a plan to check it and can let go.” Sounds so ridiculous, but I am sure most newbie bloggers can relate to just how obsessive stat checking can get. Just like a regular diet, this moderation tactic did help and broke my obsessive pattern.

    The key truly is to analyze metrics that are actionable and tied to our business goals.

    Great post.

  • Michael

    This is a good post that makes me think since the traffic on one of my older websites is going up but the conversions have not. I’ve put up a Youtube channel with subscribers but I really don
    t know what to do with them. I’d say that most people are stuck at the stage of the “adolescent” since that part at least for me is the hardest.

    By the time most people reach that “mature” stage Corbett talks about there would be more than just 1 blogger but at least a 2 person team and then it is more about management and how to optimize the system that has been put in place. However I have noticed all the hard work really comes in when the 1st individidual spends years trying to put that initial automated system in.

  • Emmet Harper

    I’ve been wondering about whether traffic alone (in this case vanity traffic) is worth anything. I realize that conversion and actions are much more important, but I can’t deny the fact that appealing numbers swept me off my feet for a while, thinking that my site is successful because it has a consistently high traffic.

    This article really brought a lot of realizations as I read it. There are, indeed, other things that matter more than vanity traffic.

  • Nick Loper

    Vanity metrics combined with an obsession with checking stats is a deadly combination! Well, maybe not deadly, but at least time-consuming and unproductive.

    Like Caleb mentions, it’s all about finding the metrics or KPIs (key performance indicators) that really matter in your business. Maybe it’s customer acquisition cost. Maybe it’s revenue per visitor.

    I’m guilty of being the guy who loves to look at the Google Analytics charts but only rarely do I ever DO something as a result. Great post, thanks for the reminder!

  • welogodesigner

    Great advice Caleb. The setting of Goals really filters out the serious traffic from others.

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I used to be so caught up with vanity stats and metrics when I first started blogging that I didn’t realize how much energy I was wasting. It took me a long time to figure it out too.

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