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As a leader or an organizer, to measure the success of your campaigns, you closely monitor and report a number of metrics––like a boat captain keeping an eye on their compass at all times. But chances are, your compass is actually a little unreliable. Why? Vanity metrics.

What are vanity metrics?

Vanity metrics make you feel good about the work you’ve done––and while  easy to measure, they’re not the numbers that most accurately speak to your progress toward achieving your mission. For example: 

  • Your monthly website traffic. You may be tempted to  attribute a spike in this metric to your overall campaigning efforts, but in doing so, you might miss that it’s due to something else (like a mention from an influencer on social media)
  • The number of events and trainings you’ve hosted. Putting out resources for your community to learn from is great, but what’s more important to measure is how attendees benefited from the content afterwards––asking for their feedback in a survey is a great way to collect this information to track your success. 
  • The number of likes you’ve received on social media. While likes might make an easy metric to point to as a form of progress, the metrics that speak more meaningfully to reaching your audience are the responses, conversations, referrals, or recommendations happening across your social channels.
  • Your total supporter count. This is a really important metric to monitor, but it doesn’t give you any indication of the quality of your supporter base. Instead, tracking what portion of your supporter base is actively engaged vs dormant can be more informative. 

If you feel guilty of relying too much on vanity metrics, know that you’re not alone. Many organizations are in the same boat, because they feel pressure to show progress to their stakeholders. As a result, they lean into vanity metrics because they tend to give the sense that you are getting results, or because they are easy to obtain and free, or simply because they don’t know that those numbers don’t necessarily speak to their success.

What makes a good metric? 

A good metric is tied to impact. That means it should demonstrate clear cause and effect on your mission. It should also be auditable (i.e the data should be credible), easily accessible, and understandable by all of your team.

For example, looking at the total increase in your supporter base might seem like a great metric to prove your growth, but it can be misleading if the cost of supporter acquisition is too high. Instead, the metric you should keep an eye on in this case is the supporter acquisition cost.

A good metric also looks at the outcome versus the output. For instance, let’s say you run a program that aims to give free laptops to children in need. The output here would be how many children receive a laptop, while the outcome metric is how many children were actually able to follow classes at home and the effect that had on their performance in school. You can set goals for outputs, but they should always be in support of your outcome goals. For example, an education organization might set an output goal of building ten  schools in a region. Their target outcome, though, is for every child in the region to receive a primary school education. To reach that outcome, the region not only needs schools but the community buy-in to ensure its children attend and succeed. 

That is not to say you should entirely stop looking at vanity metrics. The purpose of a vanity (or optimization) metric is to help optimize your strategy for your target audience on a specific channel. But when you report the number of impressions, clicks, or shares your content receives you should not tie the numbers to your success. Instead, you should tie them to better understanding your audience on that channel.

Identifying meaningful metrics that measure real impact

We’ve now seen how focusing on vanity metrics can provide a false sense of success and put you down the wrong track. Now, let’s explore the metrics that can help you measure your progress effectively––and why:

  • Acquisition metrics: Instead of looking solely at your supporter/donor/member growth, look at where they are coming from. Does it align with your acquisition spend?
  • Conversion rates on pages: Instead of looking at general conversion rates on your website, look at specific conversion rates––like the conversion rate on a volunteer page vs a donation page or that of a particular audience. 
  • Conversion rate on social media: In addition to tracking  engagement rates on social media, make it a priority to track the actions taken outside of those platforms as well––out of all those who liked and commented on your post, what portion made it to your website to sign up as a volunteer or RSVP to an event? 
  • Subscriber engagement:  Outside of your email list growth, how are people engaging with your emails? What has your open rate looked like over the last 6 months? What percentage of subscribers followed through on your CTA and converted into volunteers, RSVPs  or donors?
  • Average donation size: How has your average donation size ranged over time?  Keep in mind, if your acquisition cost  is larger than your average donation size, you could be losing money on new donors, at least in the short term.
  • Donor retention rate:  Repeat donors are critical to building a reliable stream of revenue through donations since  it costs more to acquire a new donor than to retain an existing one. Lowering churn should be a priority if your retention rate is low.
  • Outcome of fundraising efforts: How many people have benefited from the money you’ve raised? What difference did it make in regards to your mission and those it directly impacts?

With meaningful data and metrics top of mind, you’ll be ready to set goals that drive real impact for your important work––and ground that work in a clear sense of direction as you navigate building concrete change for your community and success for your organization. 

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