Flash back a few weeks to the 2015 State of Search Conference. Duane Forrester was giving the closing keynote, “Why You Look Forward.” The presentation was jam-packed with insights about how emerging technologies are changing marketing and SEO strategies. (Check out the SlideShare and get inspired.)

But right near the end of his keynote, Forrester said something that really struck me: “Stop thinking about ‘driving traffic’ and start thinking about ‘visitor task completion.” Then he asked how many people in the audience (all digital marketing professionals, by the way) actually do track outcomes of customer behaviors. Only about 10% percent of their hands went up. I was blown away—and not in a good way.

Changing Your Perspective

It’s easy—particularly for your clients, who don’t have the digital savvy you do—to get caught up in vanity metrics. “How many visits did I get? How many impressions?” A high number of visits or impressions may look good, but what do they actually tell you?

Not much, says Kissmetrics’ Lars Lofgren in “Metrics, Metrics On The Wall, Who’s The Vainest Of Them All?” “Vanity metrics are all those data points that make us feel good if they go up but don’t help us make decisions,” Lofgren writes. These numbers don’t tell you how customers are spending (or not) with your business, or where they’re getting sidetracked from doing so. They don’t help you make decisions about what to do to turn visits into conversions.

Part of the problem, as I see it, is that we’re focused on tactical execution—checking off items on our marketing to-do lists—instead of how to get consumers from point A to B on a conversion path. I’m guilty as charged, too. A client’s expectations can over-prioritize metrics goals like increased traffic, likes, or followers: it’s “How many visits did I get?” again.

But following a to-do list without taking into account customers’ behaviors and responding accordingly is just going to send you off track, fast.

Tracking Numbers that Matter

Don’t get suckered into thinking top-level metrics and Google Analytics (which, in its default settings, produces what Lofgren calls “a data puke of vanity metrics”) are enough to give you the full picture. You need to track actionable metrics—information that will help you make decisions. You need metrics that matter to your bottom line.

Stop worrying so much about numbers like site visits and sessions. Dig deeper. Start tracking events and conversion goals. Focus your energy and resources on analyzing task completions and outcomes—what people are doing on your site.

How many people have completed this goal or taken that sequence? Which segments of your audience are most and least likely to convert? How long does it take to complete a goal, and what’s the holdup?

This is the information that’s truly useful to you: how far down the sale funnel customers get, and what might be stopping them from following through. When you know where a specific conversion path is breaking down, you can take steps to correct it, guiding customers to the end goal. These are the types of numbers that help you make informed decisions and refine your strategy.

It will take some time, effort, and resources to re-think your approach to metrics and get set up with the correct tools (hey, Google Analytics is still helpful if you set up goal tracking). But it’s worth the investment.

Guiding Customers Down the Conversion Path

Once you’ve switched your focus to tracking what customers are doing on your site, the next step is to think about what you want them to be doing.There’s probably quite a gap between the two.

How do you get people to follow a conversion path all the way to its end? How do your site navigation and the customer experience you provide help guide visitors to outcomes you want? Does tweaking this or that step in the funnel increase your conversions? How do you catch them in the midst of a task and encourage them to complete it?

These are the types of questions you need to be asking—and then addressing. Use your analytics on conversion goals to inform your answers. Then test and re-test any changes you make to your customer experience or conversion path. Ask for qualitative customer feedback to put your numbers into context.

Moving Forward

Much of marketers’ focus in 2015 was on going mobile-friendly. Check; achievement unlocked. Take a second to pat yourself on the back for getting your business and your clients mobile-optimized, but then move on. There’s still a lot of work to do.

In 2016, the digital marketing industry will need to evolve the way it thinks about metrics. Entering the Age of the Customer will mean that tracking and interpreting the behaviors of those super-customers will be more crucial than ever for success.

As Duane Forrester said in his keynote, consuming and understanding data is absolutely critical for a digital marketer. As we move into a new year, make a resolution to consume—and fully understand—the data that matters.