Don't believe the numbers. They lie

Of course that’s not true. Numbers don’t lie. They can’t. They’re just numbers. Like a computer, numbers can only tell us what we tell them to tell us. Or what we decide to read into them. 

Numbers are tools. If we use them right they’re handy. But (not unlike a three-year-old) if no one stops to question them, everything can go wrong badly.

Confused? Not surprising. Having been inspired by Lance Walker's piece on the ‘weight of measurement,' this is a post about numbers. Yawn. 

We all learn math before we calculate

It’s a fundamental. Calculators can short-cut the brain-hurtiness of working stuff out in your head. But before we were allowed calculators at school, we had to know how to do math in our heads. It was frustrating. Why use your brain when you can use a machine? The answer – our brains can then sense-check the numbers.

The gut is smarter than the brain

Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but many of us have taken a blue pill and dropped into a swirly world of numbers. In fact 68 percent of us spend 6.2 hours a day engaged with 1.9 connected screens resulting in 92 percent increased productivity year on year since the last stat. I made that made up to make a point. But looking around, it makes sense. It’s about gut feel. If you look up now, you’ll see a lot of people tapping computers or checking phones. I guarantee it. In fact, the first-world problem du jour is ‘better battery life’ so we can do more of it without needing to stop. 

Numbers count. But they don’t always add up

Problem is. Not every stat is ‘gut-feel right’. I recently saw something from a mobile website company. It sounded insightful and actionable. “People who browse on a Smartphone spend XX percent more in retail.” It drew the obvious conclusion that having a mobile-optimised website would mean people spent more money with you. Good insight. But gut-feel wrong. How can choice of mobile genuinely affect retail spend?

The issue is the hidden variable. Common sense says that people with more money are more likely to have smartphones. And that people with more money are more likely to spend more in retail. So when you line up people with or without smartphones to see who spends more in retail, there’s a correlation. But it’s not about the phones … Surely, it’s about them having more money in the first place.

Metrics vs. Common Sense

That’s the bottom line. Before you listen to the numbers, listen to your gut. Numbers can tell a good story (and in the age of the infograph they usually do it in a compelling way). But stories are just stories. Some are fact. Some are fiction. And some are fairytales. 

One of my favourite related quotations comes from TS Eliot:

“Where is the wisdom, we’ve lost in knowledge.
And where is the knowledge we’ve lost in information.”

We’re people. We’re magical. We “feel”. And you can’t really count that or measure it or accurately assess it based on last year’s results. It just is.

Heart vs. Brain – Inputs vs. Outputs

Numbers are obviously important. But the reason I got excited when reading Lance’s article is his point about numbers not being everything. They can only reflect what people put in through common sense and feeling. And even though it’s exciting to live in a big-data, hyper-connected, algorithmically modelled marketing world, it’s people and their feelings that fundamentally help us understand our customers. 

Self-promotionally, that’s why we called our business Hunch. Because marketing is about science and art. It’s about heart and brain working together. And that’s what makes it one of the most interesting industries on the planet. 

It’s also why we need to check, challenge and sometimes forget about the numbers.

That’s what I reckon. What do you think?

Michael Goldthorpe