Nick Hillier

Give meaning to your marketing numbers

From pricing to brand KPIs to consumer data to budgeting. Numbers are everywhere. It’s hard to create or read a marketing document that has no numbers in it. Yet we don't spend enough time interrogating, contextualising, interpreting and applying meaning to numbers. 

Missing meaning makes for numeric nightmares

Andrew Tenzer shows how poor research design leads to misleading advice on social purpose. And Target making a teenager’s father aware she was pregnant is big data’s own ‘New Coke’ moment. In both cases, the numbers used lacked meaning. The authors of Tenzer’s example removed meaning by being biased. And Target forgot they were dealing with real life. 

Not only marketing: numeric nightmares are everywhere

In 2021, the UK Statistics Authority found 47 cases of MPs and civil servants misusing data. Data and statistics misuse is so rife an organisation called Full Facts has been set up. Their aim is to fight bad information with the mantra “bad information ruins lives.” 

Full Facts focus on the public sector. But their mantra also applies to marketing. That’s why we need to give meaning to marketing numbers. Doing so avoids numeric nightmares. This will improve how much you understand the people behind your numbers. And how well people receive numbers you communicate. 

What do we mean by meaningful numbers?

Unmeaningful numbers are shapes on a slide. Data in a base. Bars in a chart. But meaningful numbers have context. Objectivity. They’re humanised. They’re sensitive to emotion. 

How can you make your numbers meaningful?

1. Work out why

Numbers are powerful. They decide compensation. Dictate budgets. Decide strategy. Measure success. But people make numbers. And people have agendas. Individual motivations. Selfish aims. This affects what numbers people use to persuade their audiences or sell their ideas.

We’re all consumers of numeric information. But too often we’re passive consumers. Or we’re too busy writing notes to ask why someone uses a number. Or why they aren’t using a different one. And we should.

The OECD’s Measuring Trust in Official Statistics model ask us to assess statistics trust by reviewing their accuracy, timeliness, reliability, credibility, objectivity, relevance and coherence. Marketers should be asking these same questions of their numbers. Why? Because answers to these questions will make us think more about the numbers we use. 

2. Create and communicate context 

The context used to introduce a number and its accompanying explanation matter more than number itself. Why? Because it’s these that show what a number stands for. How someone created it. What it does and doesn’t mean. 

For example, a slide showing only your 2022 brand awareness is meaningless. What this number needs before it’s shown is the context around how you measured it (prompted or unprompted). Who you measured it among (customers or non-customers). How it compares vs. previous years. Competitive comparisons. And so on.

It’s this information which dictates if your brand awareness is good or bad. Not the brand awareness number itself. 

3. Know your statistical story 

Hans Rosling is the godfather of statistical stories. He could communicate masses of data meaningfully in seconds. Rosling used many techniques to do this. But his main technique was humanising data in an emotive way. 

We often forget that data is real people. With real lives. And real problems. And this matters. 

Let’s imagine we’re asking our board to invest in more call-centre staff. We show the need for investment by saying: “50% of customers had to wait on-hold for 30mins during peak-hours.”

This statement is characterless. Bland. Unpersuasive. And only tells half the story. This can all change by humanising our numbers:

50% of our the 3.8mn customers who phoned had to wait on-hold for 30min. This means we’ve wasted 950,000 hours of our customers lunchtimes and evenings.

4. Figure out the feeling

Economist Tim Hartford says always asks “how does it make me feel” when he reads statistical claims. This statement is true of all numbers. All. And minor differences can change a number’s meaning. For example:

A 1p difference in how you price a product. A product priced at £19.99 is using charm pricing. This leverages left brain bias to round the price down to £10. Thus, signalling a bargain. But the same product priced at £20 creates a negative reaction of distrust a retailer has rounded the price up

Similarly, what’s the difference between a product having an average review score of 4.5 or 4.6 stars (out of 5)? Nothing. Except that at 4.6 a product people think a product is too good to be true. Whereas at 4.5 a product is seen to have an acceptable level of imperfection. Like people, numbers aren’t and shouldn’t be perfect. The right level of imperfection adds meaning. Not mistake

5. Figure out the feelings

Making numbers meaningful matters most when presenting them to an audience. But the challenge is that the same number means different things to different people. Different people evoke different feelings. 

A salesperson with strong momentum and a full pipeline may see an ambitious sales target as a motivating goal. Equally, it may create fear and anxiety for a salesperson with less momentum and leads. How do we manage this and maximise the emotive meaning behind the numbers we present?

It’s hard. We can’t split a 20-person audience into 20 1-2-1 meetings. But what we can do is take the time to know this audience. Consider their reactions to numbers. This allows us to communicate their meaning in a way that’s sensitive to the diverse ways people react to them.

Why does this matter now?

With daily talks of a recession we’re all going to be asked to show our marketing’s effectiveness. Justify budgets. Have our spend scrutinised. And so on. Numbers will be central to all such discussions. That makes adding meaning to numbers now more important than ever. 


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