Navigating Beyond Vanity Metrics — Do Followers, Likes and Comments on Social Media Really Matter?

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Social media is filled with vanity metrics to the point that they are often used to quantify the success of any particular campaign. From follower counts to likes, comments, quotes, and reposts, everyone chases this engagement, but few people can actually tell you what they mean or why they matter.

When performing a Google search, there’s an endless line of marketplaces that offer to sell us these vanity metrics so that we can flex a number on a screen. And people buy it — even the most popular social accounts have a non-trivial volume of fake followers. These fake metrics can likely do more harm than good, limiting reach for the sake of numbers on a screen.

Everybody chases the dragon, but beyond website clicks and potential sales leads, the ROI of vanity metrics are thin.

Related: 5 Reasons Why Your Brand Needs a Strong Social Media Presence

The costs of social media

Social media quickly gained importance in the last 20 years, with giants like Facebook and TikTok dominating online conversations. In 2023, approximately 4.89 billion people use social media, with brands spending $269 billion on advertising on these platforms, expected to grow to over $300 billion next year.

Sprout Social estimates social media management costs an average of $12,300 per month, with smaller brands paying between $500-$5000, and social media companies like Meta, X (Twitter), and Reddit have been raising the ante all year with incremental increases in their pricing structures to increase their profits. For example, businesses spend $1000 monthly for the gold verification check on X, while Meta charges $21.99 per month per page on each platform.

On top of that, both X and Reddit limited API access, with Reddit charging $12,000 per 50 million API requests and X’s Enterprise API package starting at $42,000 per month. This negatively impacted the third-party tools businesses rely on for data analysis to determine sentiment and engagement, as well as tracking trends or scheduling posts.

Related: The Importance of Customer Engagement on Social Media

Making matters worse, the social media landscape is becoming increasingly more fragmented. There are 36 social media platforms with over 100 million users each, 21 of which are based in the United States. These platforms competing over the same 24 hours a day for our attention can leave brands struggling to appear on all platforms, especially in a meaningful way. An unorganized effort can end up wasting money on something that doesn’t have a tangible return.

Even worse, any given platform could shut down or become passe overnight, and there’s no telling what will be relevant tomorrow.

Related: What Skills Does Elon Musk Have and Why Is He So Successful?

Debunking the value of social currency

The lure of vanity metrics is even more apparent during Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and subsequent rebranding to X. Major advertisers like Disney, Apple, and IBM continue to pull out of the platform, and Xpats continue showing up on alternatives like Bluesky and Threads lamenting about not wanting to leave behind their follower counts.

However, these cumulative follower counts are not necessarily indicative of an account’s current visibility (or relevancy). These six- and seven-figure accounts grew over the course of Twitter’s 15 years in existence, so it’s highly unlikely they’re all still active. Many Bluesky and Threads users reported similar or even increased engagement on these newer platforms, despite having a fraction of their Twitter following built in a condensed timeframe this year.

Follower counts don’t include how many are active and engaged with your content, and the engagement doesn’t necessarily convert off platform. Building an engaged community that supports your business involves three important steps.

1. Offer exemplary products, services, and customer experiences

Businesses often put the cart before the horse and build a social media presence before they even have a real business to promote. Keep in mind that your reputation online is very much tied to your IRL actions, so the best way to encourage positive engagement online is to show up and provide stellar value. This will go much further than pouring a lot of money into social media marketing.

Related: Dominate Your Industry: How to Become the Best in Your Field

2. Build an omnichannel strategy

Today’s social media landscape is more fractured and decentralized than ever–there’s no one place to be active, as different people use different social networks for various reasons. What’s most important is to choose platforms where your customers are active, and you have the capacity to provide real value.

Nobody can be on all of them. If you only give a half-hearted effort, people will notice, so be sure you have the experienced staff to manage your accounts. Creating graphics, writing copy, producing videos, and managing a Discord server are all entirely different skill sets, so be sure you have the resources and talent to maintain quality.

3. Combine marketing with customer service

Social media combines marketing and customer service, so be sure you’re effectively doing both. On one hand, you’re raising brand awareness and creating thoughtful and engaging content to draw in new customers. On the other, you’re on the frontline addressing negative feedback and providing solutions.

Be sure you’re addressing both sides of the coin, as it will yield the highest long-term ROI. To gain trust, B2C brands should lean into a positive referral system on marketplaces they exist on, and B2B businesses should lean into the Better Business Bureau and other customer service ratings.

The social media landscape is flooded with fabricated numbers, and it can be easy to obsess over them or even pay to gamify them. But at the end of the day, having a million followers doesn’t translate directly to ROI. Be purposeful in your actions, and build a community that engages with you across all platforms to ensure you aren’t wasting time and money on something that could inevitably be worth nothing.