The Shrine of Big Numbers is awful for marketing

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You can probably figure out what the concept means from the headline. Basically, many people in marketing think about things in terms of the biggest numbers possible, because those are the impressive things you want to report back up a command chain. (Marketing is hardly the only department that’s guilty of this.) So rather than thinking in terms of actual, tangible, and good ROI … we think about things like “impressions” and “social engagement,” even though how many “likes” your FB post got doesn’t mean anything in terms of your brand, your revenue stream, or anything else.

But, it sounds better to say that some post got 242 likes than to actually spend time analyzing what you’re doing on social or in a specific sphere, right?

That, in essence, is The Shrine of Big Numbers. And it’s a death knell for marketing.

From February 2011 to about May 2012, I worked for a small part of PBS called Learning Matters. They focus on making education videos that air on NewsHour. My boss at the time, and all the people under him, were huge Shrine of Big Numbers people. I was doing webpage management and social media, and it was really hard to get any sort of strategy going. The main thing the boss cared about was big numbers and his TV spots, so when I tried to report anything contextually, he pushed back on me. (Oftentimes, he yelled.)

Eventually, because I really didn’t give much of a shit about this job after all the yelling, I just started doing what he wanted — so even though I knew it didn’t really matter, I’d report impressions and social shares as the key metrics (“KPIs!”) because that was what he wanted, and he was the boss, and that’s how things are supposed to work.

If you know me or have read this blog, you know the next thing I did after that job was go to graduate school to study organizational behavior and better leadership. Probably not a coincidence, eh?

Anyway, let me attempt to explain how this all could be more effective through the prism of that job:

  • I worked with a lady there who needed to produce a TV feature and wanted a few very specific types of educators. She essentially needed to find them and wanted a digital/social campaign to locate them.
  • In this case, you are literally looking for a specific target. It’s not like trying to get anyone to fill out a survey, or whatever. It’s targeted. You need teachers, of X-age, in Y-location, with Z-experience in Grades X, Y, and Z. You know? It’s targeted.
  • Despite that, she was always upset when I’d come to her and say something like “Well, I put out 242 feelers” or something. She’d be like “No, we need 10,000!”
  • OK, maybe we do… but 10K feelers when you have a specific focus doesn’t make much sense.

I’m probably slightly off the rails here, so let me bring it back to a core message:

Marketing is a value-add for sales and for “the power of the brand” (whatever that might be). Everything it does should drive one of those two areas.

Here’s the big thing that has changed in the past 15 years, and marketing hasn’t quite caught up at most organizations: the ability to target. You can figure out who’s on your website. You can figure out what they’re doing. You can figure out who’s in your stores and how long and what they’re browsing. You have this ability. You can target and adapt and optimize and make real changes and see if they do anything. That’s really powerful stuff, honestly.

But it doesn’t sound good to tell your boss “Well, we’re targeting and looking at Google Analytics and we’ve seen that these three webpages aren’t optimizing, so we’re going to focus there…”

It sounds good to tell your boss “We had 8 million media impressions on that story in WSJ!”

So we chase that.

While we chase that, we do another stupid thing: we chase fads. Marketing automation is a big one. Social media memes, like selfies, are another. (Think of how many orgs have had a ‘Selfie Contest’ in the past 4–6 years.) We chase something that worked for another brand because we assume it will work for our brand. That doesn’t make any sense. Brands are unique. You want to stop and tell me that Pepsi and Coke are the same? They sell much of the same stuff, but their story, their approach, their HQ, their employee model, and so much else is different.

The real problem here is stuff being easy. It’s easy (and gets you off the hook) to report big numbers, instead of contextually-relevant numbers, back to your boss. It’s easy to buy an automation program that’s promising you the sun. It’s easy to ape what another brand is doing. It’s easy. It’s not real work. It doesn’t challenge or stretch or extend. And yes, people prefer easy. So I get that too.

Forrester’s Ryan Skinner mentions it here: marketing executives were upsold on content marketing, but now they realize there’s no strategy behind it. I’ve mentioned this before too: there’s a huge supply-demand problem in content marketing, and everyone’s chasing “experts” to guide them — but the experts aren’t actually tying it back to the brand they’re working with.

You can say “data-driven marketing” in a PowerPoint presentation, but if all that means to you is “Produce more stuff and send it to more people,” well … that’s not going to drive any results at the end of the day.

Bottom line: marketing needs to evolve.


A few core tenets:

  • Abandon The Shrine of Big Numbers
  • Move into The Shrine of Relevant Metrics
  • Produce content that people you’re selling to might be looking for
  • Use social media for conversations and dialogue, not link-dumping
  • Have a page on your website, linked from the home page, that tells your story:
  • Who are you? What are you trying to do? Why should I care?
  • Use data, but use it right. Data doesn’t mean “more.” It means “careful targeting.”
  • Realize what your ultimate goals are (sales and “the brand”)

It’s time. Let’s do this.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well.

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