Post image for TRENDS to Act On: Avoid the Vortex of Valueless Marketing Metrics

TRENDS to Act On: Avoid the Vortex of Valueless Marketing Metrics

on March 18, 2014

For my first job out of college I worked at an advertising agency in San Francisco. One of our clients was McDonald’s and we handled advertising for dozens if not hundreds of the fast food restaurants in Northern California and Nevada. Each owner had to fund a greater local advertising budget and it was our job to present to them the success of their advertising spending. The night before our meeting my colleague was going over her presentation which consisted of her showing when we were above or below the national average among other McDonald’s restaurants. That was the entire presentation. Most of her comments boiled down to “and you see here we’re above the average, but here we’re below the average.”

I had just graduated with a college with a degree in statistics and just comparing yourself to the average doesn’t really mean anything, especially if you’re just a few points below or above. It’s also kind of an apples-to-oranges comparison to present the success of McDonald’s advertising in Nevada and Northern California with advertising in other parts of the country. It would make more sense to compare McDonald’s advertising to that of other fast food chains in the same locale.

I realized it was the night before the presentation, but I had to say something.

“Comparing us to the average isn’t significant. There’s always going to be half of the stores above and half below. We should be looking at significant differences, such as when we’re one or two standard deviations above or below the average.”

My colleague’s reaction: “I hear what you’re saying David, but you’re wrong.”

I’m a stupid kid out of college. How could I possibly know anything?

Even if I was green to the advertising industry, what I do know is that these numbers didn’t tell a story. Everyone in the room could tell which numbers were below 50 percent and which ones were above 50 percent. What we didn’t know was the story behind these and what type of action should we take as a result?

LOOK! These numbers are bigger than the numbers last month

Unless you’re selling advertising on your site, stop paying attention to pageviews. In aggregate, pageviews are the most meaningless, yet most reported, web analytic. It’s practically impossible not to look at pageviews and want to report them. They’re often the first number you see when you open your analytics program, and also the largest number. And bigger is always better, right? Not always. Pageviews are actually a highly misleading measurement of the public’s interest in your content.

Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat, a service that measures in great detail the consumption of content at 4,000 sites, wrote an excellent piece in TIME in which he debunked many myths about the web, most notably our obsession with pageviews. Here are some of his findings:

  • On average, 55% of pageviews are looked at for less than 15 seconds.
  • Actual news got the highest level of time on page and engagement.
  • Generic articles that used terms such as “Top,” “Best,” and “Biggest” got the most clicks, but the least engagement.
  • The best performing content captured approximately 5 times the attention of the worst performing content.
  • If you can hold a visitor’s attention for three minutes they are twice as likely to return than if you only hold them for just one minute.

What Haile surmised from his research is that linkbait articles do on average garner the highest pageviews, but they don’t do anything for retaining audience, therefore making the publisher work harder to capture a new audience to visit the site.

Focus on the metrics that explain behavior, tell a story, and provide actionable advice

If you want to be successful, stop obsessing over whether your numbers are going up or down. Instead, look at statistics that matter for your business. If you go past the front page of analytics and dig down you’ll find some very clear stories that will give you insight as to what’s working and what’s not working. Once you know the story, you’ll actually be able to focus on doubling down on what’s working and solve the issues that are not working.

Here are some data points you can find in Google Analytics that provide a very clear story as to how users are reacting to your site, thus giving you actionable information:

Average visit duration

What it tells you: How compelling is your content?

Action: What would it take to push that number over 3:00? Maybe you should write longer form content.

Percentage of returning visitors

What it tells you: Number of visitors who consume your content and want to come back.

Action: Create more incentives (e.g., better content, news-based content, social engagement, or contest) to get them to return.


What it tells you: Percentage of visitors who spend less than 10 seconds on your site.

Action: If you’re creating too much linkbait/scannable posts, create content that demands greater attention. Or maybe the problem is the title of your posts isn’t delivering on the content promise.

Mobile and tablet visitors

What it tells you: Percentage of visitors who are coming from a mobile or tablet device.

Action: If your site is not optimized for mobile and your competitors’ sites are, then you’re losing a significant portion of your business to your competitors. You must optimize your site for mobile.

Behavior flow

What it tells you: The most popular patterns visitors use to navigate the site.

Action: Do they follow the path you want them to follow? If not, look at the navigation cues and what you can do to improve them.

Site content

What it tells you: Probably the most valuable metric for content producers because it simply tells you what content they’re looking at and how long they’re looking at it.

Action: Use this knowledge to constantly update your editorial calendar as to what you should produce next.

Shift focus to improving metrics that matter

At a Lean Startup conference I attended in 2012, Eric Ries invited the audience to boo anyone who presented vanity metrics, or metrics that are just big, but don’t tell a story or offer any actionable advice. It’s similar to Purim, a Jewish holiday which tells a story of Jews being persecuted. In the story of Purim congregants are told to make noise whenever you hear they hear the villain’s name, “Haman.” Similarly, “pageviews” have become the new analytics villain that should be shouted down.

You can always show numbers going up. What doesn’t always go up are your dollars, unless you take action on what you learn from the stories that web metrics tell you.


Stock photo of number vortex courtesy of Bigstock photo.

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