Why Metrics and Ego Can’t Work Together
Every day it seems, a new metric is added to a pile that’s starting to look more like a mountain. And from grade school to business, we are prone to slipping into so-called vanity metrics “prizing comparison over advancement, and ego over evolution.” But no matter how naturally that action of comparison may be, it’s not going to provide the metrics we need to genuinely succeed.
FirstRound set out recently to provide a comprehensive explanation of vanity metrics and their potential pitfalls. Vanity metrics are described as “surface-level metrics...often large measures, like number of downloads, that impress others.” These are opposed to clarity metrics with a more operational purpose and utility “like the number of minutes a day your product actually gets used or how long it took for a user to get service.”
Now, it’s important to understand from the beginning that these two metrical types each have their place. Vanity metrics can be an enormously powerful way to get your foot in the door on any kind of opportunity where the big, flashy numbers count. The trouble comes when we take them as the be all end all—which we so often do.
This metaphor of school grades that FirstRound puts forward is an excellent way to make the point. Too often we look at A-grades and decide somehow that it’s the ultimate measure of a person’s intelligence or ability. There’s no doubt that there’s a correlation there, but to imply any sort of more direct causal relationship is generally a huge mistake.
It’s such a good metaphor because school kids do this kind of thing constantly. They see that A, they compare it to their friends grades, and they decide that it’s proof positive that they are the smartest person in the group. That is vanity metrics in a nutshell.
Let’s look at a sports metaphor to continue to prove the point. Imagine 16 basketball teams are competing in a bracket-style tournament. If the 16th seeded team manages to upset the number one seed, we would never say that team is better overall given all the past data that we have to go on.
But someone thinking entirely in terms of vanity metrics would be much more comfortable making that claim. Well, they won didn’t they? They progressed further in the tournament and placed higher so therefore they must be better, right?
It seems obvious in that case that the vanity metric isn’t really the true determining factor of skill or ability, but it gets much murkier when we wade into the realm of business and online audiences. It’s so easy to look at impressions or followers or likes and start creating a hierarchy of success based entirely on big numbers.
They’ve got a million followers and we’ve got 100,000 so clearly they must be more successful. We do this sort of thing all the time these days and it is mostly just an ego game. It doesn’t say anything about legitimate and consistent success.
If you have 100,000 followers, but a stronger ratio of interactions or a higher percentage of those people are converting into some kind of sale then you’re probably better off. Those big numbers are valuable, there’s no doubt about that. But they don’t mean everything no matter how much we might like to believe it.
It’s easy to be dazzled by big numbers—to be tantalized at the prospect of comparing yourself and furnishing your ego with the certainty that the bulk stats trump everything. But the truth is that you just won’t learn anything about how successful you actually are. More importantly, you won’t learn anything about how you can continue to take productive steps forward.
Loyalty counts. Engagement counts. Purchases count. An impression won’t teach you much, but if you can recognize clearly what funneled a person all the way from seeing an ad to buying a product (or not) then you can reverse engineer that into meaningful progress and value.
To get started on this path, you need to be able to set your ego aside. Your wasting your time if it’s all devoted to making the big numbers inflate. Success happens when you can stop worrying about winning in a superficial way and start building something that’s going to last.