A little vanity isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Vanity metrics get a bad rap. There is value, after all, in things like raw traffic numbers or gross sales – even if they aren’t necessarily actionable in and of themselves. They may even provide some comparative context although a true vanity metric is going to be a lot heavier on bun than on meat. But that doesn’t make them completely useless.

Vanity metrics often pave the way for deeper, more meaningful conversations and analyses. They are, in a sense, door openers. The problem, of course, is that they don’t actually get you into the room. That takes actual substance and that’s the point where vanity metrics fall apart.

Ornametrics, on the other hand, are much more insidious and are there as window dressing (ornamentation) alone. They’re presented for the express purpose of creating a distraction from what really matters – often bad news or less-than-stellar performance. They are the bright and shiny object on the second slide of the deck that steers the discussion toward happier – if less substantive themes.

Put another way, vanity metrics are hors d’oeuvres. Ornametrics are a packet of sugar.

Right now we’re in the opening weeks of report season which means that between now and the end of February you’re likely to see a lot of reports touting things that look like insights based on activities that look like research but if you look carefully (and we try to) you’re likely to find that a fair amount of them are pretty heavy on bun, as it were.

End-of-year reporting and coming-year forecasting are activities that have kept marketing teams busy for a long time and are as expected as much as they are ignored – often because they are just a little too heavy on bun. The problem is, everybody does it.

The other problem is, everybody knows it.

The same marketers who compile and present these reports are the ones who ignore them because, beyond a factoid or two, there’s usually not a lot more to them.

Read enough of these reports and you start to notice things that might not be apparent to the casual marketing reader. There are favorite formats and phrasing. There are the buzzwords of the moment, of course. And there are the favorite dodges and distractions – often in the form of a big number, usually presented in a really big font somewhere between slides two and three.

It’s worth pointing out that any metric can be a vanity metric and any metric can be an ornametric – it’s all about the presenter’s intent.

NPS is a perfect example. The ubiquity of Bain’s Net Promoter Score means that it’s going to come up in conversation and its going to appear on lists of key CX metrics. But alone and by itself, NPS doesn’t really offer much in the way of steering – which would land it more in the ornametric category. On the other hand, unpacking the various components that are rolled up in that NPS could provide a lot of directional guidance – thereby landing over in the vanity metric category. Same number, two different contexts.

So how can you tell a useful metric from a vanity metric from an ornametric? Here are our never-fail tests:

  • Can the number (or numbers) provide insight that leads to action?
    If yes, then you have a useful metric on your hands.
  • Does the number provide context or a pathway toward more actionable insight?
    If yes, then you probably have a vanity metric on your hands.
  • Does the number look really good on paper, create an appropriate amount of buzz in the room and then lead to straight to lunch break?
    If yes, then you’ve just been handed an ornametric and you would be well- advised to ask some probing questions after the break.

Our entire value proposition at TheCustomer is based on the idea that there is demand for real, genuine insight. We look at a lot of what is being published for marketers’ consumption and it would appear that there is “some” room for improvement, room for … integrity. Room for being useful as well as promotional. There is a lot of bun out there.

That doesn’t make us the arbiters of truth so much as it makes us vigilant and curious. And let’s be honest, as marketers, we all have a built-in, and usually well-honed B.S. meter. We commit to use ours for the good of mankind if you will too.

Read more: The One Metric You Should Obsess Over As An Manager