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Pitching bullshit: the art of selling online metrics

A while back Liz Gannes of AllThingsD, reported that pageviews, unique views, registered users, and many other forms of metrics used to define online popularity are “bullshit metrics.”

Analytics company Mixpanel and its investor Andreessen Horowitz are trying to persuade the tech world to be more honest with itself by reporting numbers that are far more informative: Engagement and retention.

… Marc Andreessen and Mixpanel founder Suhail Doshi have decided they want to raise the shame level by calling them “bullshit metrics.”

Everyone that uses any kind of metric knows they aren’t perfect and that they are often easily manipulated. That was the case back in the day of print, too. Reader numbers were often inflated, and all sorts of tricks were used to help sell newspapers and magazines to advertisers.

Metrics, in one form or another, are one of the chief currencies of the digital economy. That’s how publishers get paid, and that’s how startups can raise money by showing their popularity.

Publishers and startups know that the metrics they report aren’t a reliable way to gauge success but that’s what advertisers and investors want to see, so that’s what they see.

Mr Andreessen wants metrics that measure engagement and retention. But that’s just another thing to be gamed and it’s very easy to game things in the digital world. It’s still true today, as it was back in the day, that no one knows you’re a dog.

The truth about online metrics of any kind is that whatever the metric — its value will degrade over time.

Advertisers want people to engage with their ads so they design them to be engaging such as clicking on what type of ad you want played on Hulu, thus driving engagement metrics for not much benefit to the viewers. How many people want to engage with advertising? None. It doesn’t matter because that’s what pays the ad agency bills that quarter.

You have to apply your own analysis of the metrics being offered and that’s what investors such as Andreessen Horowitz, and advertisers need to do, and that’s what the best ones do.

It’s only “bullshit metrics” if you don’t know how to interpret them according to your needs and goals.

The important thing is not to stop using metrics of one kind or any kind, it’s important to be measuring something, even if it needs to be changed going forward.

And it’s important to remember that some types of metrics will change over time because they reflect trends and fashions among online users. For example, how people “engage” is constantly changing and shifting, from blog posts, to comments, to photos, to images, to retweets, to…

Anecdotally, I see people sharing less, I see people sharing things privately, I see an iceberg forming under the public view of our online lives, representing an ever larger mass of our social activities.

Metrics are just metrics — bullshit is how they are sold. And people love being sold to.

This article by Tom Foremski originally appeared on Silicon Valley Watcher and is republished with permission.

Author | Tom Foremski: In Silicon Valley

Tom Foremski: In Silicon Valley
Tom Foremski is a former Financial Times journalist and the Founder and Publisher of Silicon Valley Watcher, which is an online news site reporting on the business of Silicon Valley and the culture of disruption. More
  • Andrea Mitchell

    Granted, there is a lot of smoke and mirrors around metrics, but why on earth get caught up in engagement and retention? Impressions, views, click-through rates, cost per click .. interaction … who cares, as long as it delivers return. For some odd reason, online markters and advertisers get caught up in the WRONG numbers. It’s simple .. if you invest in something, you expect to see a return. THOSE are the only numbers worth focussing on.

  • interesting article guys. nice work!

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