The Fake Honesty Of Deceiving Marketing Numbers

I recently read an article about Pinterest marketing success stories. People and businesses were honored by Tailwind for achieving „huge“ success on Pinterest. I read that a person increased her following on Pinterest by 72%. And I felt: yawn, that is supposed to be impressive?

And I started to think about why that is so. Why am I not as impressed by marketing numbers as I am supposed to be?

(Note on the side: Some of you may already know it, some will not, I am a mathematician. I actually hold a Ph.D. in applied mathematics. I might just be a little obsessed with numbers)

The truth is a 72% increase in followers is nothing you can pay your rent with. And even an increase of 72% in traffic standing on its own is not an impressive statement at all. It simply does not say much. If you have one visitor per day from Pinterest and then you increase that to 2 visitors, that is already an increase of 100% – but it is not really impressive – or is it?

If you have 100k visitors from Pinterest an increase of 100% would mean you get 200k visitors – and that would be impressive.

So, without knowing where you started, an increase of 100% – is nothing. It is not really a statement at all.

What would be better numbers to evaluate what we are talking about? Would absolute numbers tell us more if percentages are so deceiving? Would an increase of 1000 visits from Pinterest be a more relevant statement? Not really. Again it all depends on where you started out. When you start at somewhere between 1 and 10 – an increase of 1000 visits is huge. When you start with 500k visits – 1000 visits more or less is just a matter of natural variability and nothing impressive.

So, what is my intention with this article?

I want to open your eyes to how deceiving numbers can be!

Even though numbers seemingly can only be honest facts (or plain lies) there still is a lot of potential to deceive the reader. When we were still running our startup exploreB2B, we were at first impressed by all those shiny numbers we read about on TechCrunch and other huge outlets. Until we figured out how meaningless they really were. Sure doubling your user numbers sounds great, increase in traffic is great. But when you start thinking about the numbers you realize you can come up with the same bullsxxt facts that sound huge and mean nothing.

But the problem is, that they work. In the startup sphere, those huge outlets are explicitly looking for those numbers – because readers can be so easily deceived. And we were told explicitly, we should not be so honest. I am sure we could have compiled some impressive percentages or shiny numbers, that would not have said a thing.

The problem with these numbers is not that they are lies. Usually, they are not. But they are chosen for a single purpose: to sound impressive.

And it is up to you, to identify what these numbers can really tell and what they are not saying at all.

The biggest problem is when you deceive yourself

The problem gets even bigger when you fall for these numbers in your own marketing process.

Deceiving numbers are not only a „problem“ in articles that you read. The same goes for your own marketing and monitoring. You need to question what people say as much as you need to question your own monitoring and the numbers you are watching.

As much as those bragging numbers in marketing articles can be intimidating: if you deceive yourself with your marketing numbers in your measuring and monitoring that is even worse and you are up for a rude awakening.

Numbers sound as if someone is being totally honest. But in truth, the numbers are chosen so that they sound good. That does not necessarily mean they describe the best and most successful marketing strategy.

In your marketing you should not be looking for impressing numbers, you should be looking for honest facts!

What should you be looking for to evaluate the numbers?

Try to put the numbers into perspective. A number of 120k repins sounds impressive, but the first question now is: in what time? In a month, a year – that is a huge difference!

If the number is about an increase (or drop), check what the base number is: A drop in 1000 visits per day sounds a lot – but if your start at 100k visits it’s not much. If you start at 1k it can mean the utter failure of a business.

The same applies if we are talking about the portion of traffic coming from a social network. 80% traffic from Pinterest sounds great. But to evaluate if that is something you should consider, you should ask how much traffic they are getting in the first place. 80% of 5 visits is 4 clicks. Is that the kind of traffic you would go after?

Question if the number tells anything of importance. For example, an increase of 50% in repins sounds great. But honestly, I have seen articles getting thousands of repins and no clicks at all. So if you are looking for traffic, repins may simply not be the best metric you should monitor. An example for this is infographics. Great infographics are awesome on Pinterest and get huge numbers of repins. But they totally suck if you are looking for traffic. For the simple reason that infographics already provide all the information – there simply is no reason for pinners to click on them.

The same goes for followers on Pinterest – since Pinterest changed their algorithm to the smart feed, the number of your followers is by far not that important. Many people see huge success from Pinterest without a large following at all.

Final Words on Marketing Numbers

I only used Pinterest to illustrate my points in this article, because a post about Pinterest I recently read inspired me to write it. All these examples and facts apply to all the other networks and marketing strategies.

Plus, I don’t want to question all the mentioned marketing results – that is not my intention. I simply want to open your eyes to the deceiving power of (impressive) numbers – and that you have to put them into perspective to figure out what they really tell you.

Don’t let yourself be fooled into awe and intimidation by carefully chosen marketing numbers.

If you liked this article, please pin it! Here is an image you can use:

Don’t be fooled into awe and intimidation by carefully chosen marketing numbers. Learn to read them with care and uncover what they really tell.

  • http://www.davidmichaelchristopher.com David Christopher

    Hi Susanna,

    In general I agree with your points about numbers taken out of context not having a lot of meaning, the likelihood of people being impressed by big percentage increases, their over-use, and how we’re often obsessing over the wrong numbers. I think you choose the wrong example however, but maybe that’s just because I wrote it.

    😉

    Weeks of work went into The Takeoff Awards in which we awarded 10 of our members (people who use Tailwind) and have grown their presence on Pinterest substantially over the past 6 months. The main purpose of the piece is to help educate our community about how our most successful members are getting results by interviewing 10 of them from different categories (blog, media website, e-commerce, startup, solopreneur, etsy shop etc.) at length to try to tease our exactly how they’re growing so fast. Our mission is “To make world class marketing easy for everyone”, so it makes a lot of sense for us to invest in content like this. The hope was that these stories and the numbers we provided might lend the package some credibility and some shareability to help it reach more people and spread the word about our tool.

    To find our 10 winners we took our 100K members, took out the smaller accounts (since their percentage increases would be outsized) and looked at their growth rates over six months in followers and Repins. You’re right that followers and Repins pale in comparison to things like traffic, and ideally sales, as metrics of success, but we don’t have that data, so we worked with what we had – followers and Repins. We then looked through hundreds of the fastest-growing Pinterest profiles and website by hand to find the best examples of how to execute a Pinterest marketing strategy. Those were our winners.

    We reached out to our winners and set up interviews (6 of which we recorded so you can see them discussing their tactics live http://bit.ly/2s3IpwY). We interviewed them all and wrote up multi-page pdfs with their tips for each of them. Whilst it didn’t make sense to put all the numbers in the abstract for these case studies, all of the number that the percentages we used were based on can be found in the case studies. For instance, in the example increase of 72% that you cite in your post, by clicking through to the case study (no email required) http://bit.ly/2s3VdDe you find that Mel from Mel’s Kitchen Cafe increased her Pinterest following by 25,643 to over 65,000 followers in six months (by the time we took the screenshot in the PDF she was at 77.7K followers). I don’t think that 72% is deceptive at all. It is what it is.

    We were also careful to try to put this into context of what this follower growth meant to Mel, because as you rightly point out – success is relative and follower growth doesn’t necissarily equate with business success. In Mel’s case she says “I focus on building my following and by doing so, direct more referral traffic to my website.” So her strategy draws a direct line from Pinterest followers to more referral traffic to her website. Since she’s a blogger traffic for her translates directly to additional income.

    In short, of all the examples out there of deceiving numbers that you could have chosen, it’s my opinion that you chose the wrong example. There’s nothing deceptive about the numbers in this article (at least not deliberately). The numbers are doing their best to represent a real world that’s messy and where, according to Simply Measured’s Annual Report, 61% of social media advertisers struggle to measure their ROI. Could the numbers and the articles be more thorough? Probably. Could they go deeper? Definitely (at the risk of boring people). Are they deceptive? Not at all.

    The one point of criticism I would lay at the feed of The Takeoff Awards (at myself) is the one that you didn’t – hyperbole. I used the word “Massive”, and massive growth is subjective. Is a 72% increase in followers to over 65,000 massive? It was massive for Mel, and she was thrilled to get an award for it. I think it’s pretty massive too, but it might not be massive for everyone. Hyperbole in article titles is rampant. “Massive” isn’t deceptive either, but it does it make me blush a little.

    Well, that’s all I’ve got for you Sussana. Thanks for hearing me out!

  • Cindy Burnside Peterson

    lol I remember in college my professor talking about d – – n lies & d – – n statistics. I was a political science major. I have huge number of impressions per month at pinterest 500k but very few visitors at my website (where they need to be). so that shows you got to have the numbers where they count.