What Is a Vanity Metric in Marketing & Ad Fraud? (+ Why to Avoid Them)

November 10, 2021

In the online advertising industry, it’s crucial to have hard data that supports claims, goals, and conclusions. However, not all of this data—also called “metrics”—are equally valuable to marketers. Some key performance indicators (KPIs) fall under the category of “vanity metrics.”

Some marketers might use vanity metrics that may appear impressive, but don't contribute to the overall goal of an ad campaign. The problem is that it isn’t only marketers who use vanity metrics.

For example, some ad fraud solutions rely on these metrics to “demonstrate” their efficacy—leading to a false sense of security for the solution’s users.

What is a vanity metric? More importantly, how do they get used by some ad fraud solution providers and why should you avoid them?

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What Is a Vanity Metric?

A vanity metric is an analytical number or KPI that a company might use to sell the validity of its product or solution. The data from these metrics might look promising or make a kind of logical sense initially, but actually don’t give you the whole picture when you analyze them.

In other words, they are metrics that are used purely to look good rather than provide any actionable information. They may also be used to trick people into trusting a given product or service despite that product or service’s lack of actual efficacy.

Why You Should Avoid Vanity Metrics

Why should you avoid companies that use vanity metrics in their ad fraud solutions?

The biggest reason is that a strong reliance on vanity metrics can show just how weak the company’s fraud prevention methods are.

If they believe that the vanity metric is effective, then they may not be effective at stopping ad fraud. 

On the other hand, some organizations leverage vanity metrics to prop up what they know is an ineffective ad fraud solution.

Either way, you may end up paying for a “solution” that doesn’t work and only encourages you to waste time, effort, and marketing budget on advertising that could be riddled with fraud.

Which KPIs May Be a Vanity Metrics in Ad Fraud and Marketing?

So, which KPIs are commonly used as vanity metrics? 

Here’s a short list of some of the more commonly-used vanity metrics in ad fraud and why each one is a bad metric to rely on:

1. Viewability

This is one of the most commonly-cited metrics that gets used to “prove” that traffic is legitimate. While some might tweak the definition slightly, viewability generally refers to an ad being at least 50% visible for a full second to a viewer.

The assumption is that if someone sees that much of the ad for that long, then they’ll have had a chance to read it and be influenced by it. Also, humans don’t tend to click away from an ad in under a second.

So, if someone sees half the ad for a full second, then it has to be a legitimate impression, right? 

Wrong. Viewability is a broken metric that shouldn’t be used in ad fraud prevention for several reasons. 

First, it doesn’t tell you who or what saw the ad at all. For all you know, a bot could have been scanning the page for that one second.

Second, even if a human was on the page, that doesn’t mean they noticed the ad. They could have been focusing on other page elements so the ad didn’t even register. Or, the ad could have been placed using pixel stuffing—creating a 1 x 1 pixel image that no person could possibly notice.

2. Total Clicks

It may be surprising to see this metric on our list, but clicks alone can be used as a vanity metric by some marketing platforms. This is different from click-through rate (CTR), which compares total impressions on an ad to the clicks it generated.

As a standalone KPI, clicks can be ripe for abuse in affiliate marketing campaigns—it doesn’t tell you who made the clicks (bot or human), what percentage of people saw the ad and decided to click it, or if any of those clicks eventually led to a purchase or other customer conversion event.

CTR is a bit better as a metric since it gives you an idea of how many people saw the ad versus how many people decided to click on it. This can tell you if your ad is performing abnormally poorly (indicating an ineffective ad that needs rework) or unusually well (which might indicate click fraud from an affiliate).

However, even CTR can be abused. With any metric, it’s important to consider more than just any single data point, as the problem of ad fraud and managing your marketing is much more complex than a single data point.

3. Followers, Subscribers, and Likes

Social media influencers and marketers might use vanity metrics to puff up their online accounts to make themselves look like more attractive partners for an affiliate campaign—so you’ll spend more on advertising with them.

In many cases, the two metrics the social media fraudster might try to pump up are their followers/subscribers and their likes. 

Why? Because these are metrics that are easy to influence using bot traffic.

With a large botnet controlling fake accounts, someone running a scam on social media can make their account’s followers/subscribers swell overnight. Additionally, simplistic bots can easily “click” on a like button to make the influencer’s content look more popular than it actually is.

To better assess the suitability of a social media influencer, it’s important to do a deep dive into their content by looking at the engagement their posts get. For example, are they getting high-quality comments specific to the content of each video or some generic comments that could go onto any video or post (like “great!” or “that’s cool!”)?

How to Identify a Vanity Metric

Are you wondering if a metric used by an advertising platform or ad fraud solution is a vanity metric? Tableau established a set of questions that can be used to determine if something is a vanity metric:

  1. What business decision (if any) can be made with the metric?
  2. Can the results of a metric be reproduced intentionally?
  3. Does the data reflect the truth?

In other words, if a metric is useful for making a business decision, can be reproduced consistently, and cannot be twisted or influenced dishonestly with ease, then it might be a good metric. However, if it fails one or more of these tests, then it might be a vanity metric or need further clarification.

Stop Ad Fraud with Anura

Need help stopping fraud in your online marketing campaigns? Anura has helped numerous organizations stop ad fraud in its tracks. Our solution doesn’t just take one or two vanity metrics and claim that’s enough to stop ad fraud—we look at hundreds of data points and compare them to a database with decades of real conversion data to catch more ad fraud while eliminating the risk of false positives.

Reach out to the Anura team today and request a demo of our ad fraud solution!