Analytics & Testing

Seth Godin is Wrong About Numbers

As I was reading a blog post on a site, I came across a quote from Seth Godin. There was no link to the post, so I had to verify it on my own. Sure enough, Seth had said it:

The questions we ask change the thing we make. Organizations that do nothing but measure the numbers rarely create breakthroughs. Merely better numbers.

I have a huge respect for Seth and own the majority of his books. Every time I’ve written him, he’s returned a prompt response to my requests. He’s also an incredible public speaker and his presentation skills are off the chart. But, in my opinion, this quote is simply nonsense.

Our agency focuses on numbers… every day. As I write this, I’m running three applications crawling customer sites for issues, I’m logged into Webmasters and Google Analytics. Today I’ll be reviewing site audits for several clients. Numbers… loads of numbers.

Numbers by themselves don’t dictate a response, though. Numbers require experience, analysis and creativity to arrive at the right strategy. No marketer ever has to make a choice between numbers and creativity. In fact, our clients’ numbers often require huge amounts of creativity and risk taking to move them in the right direction.

One of our clients that has been with us for years had maximized their search rankings and their traffic continued to grow – but their conversions were flat. Since our responsibility is focused on a return on investment, we had to do something creative. We wound up rebranding the company, developing an entirely new website, cut the page count down to a fraction of the previous site, and designing a site that was centric to the company with no stock photos, all actual photos and videos of their personnel and facilities.

It was a huge risk given the majority of the leads were arriving through their site. But the numbers provided evidence that we had to do something dramatic (and risky) if they wanted to own more market share. Only measuring the numbers is what led us to the dramatic change… and it worked. The company blossomed and is now looking at expanding from 2 locations to 3 locations – at the same time they reduced their outbound staffing.

Another Perspective

I’ve worked with thousands of developers, statisticians, mathematicians and analysts over my lifetime and I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that many of the best that I’ve worked with have creative outlets.

My son, for example, is working on his PhD in math, but has a passion for music – playing, writing, mixing, recording and DJ’ing. He (literally) used to take the dog out and we’d find equations written on the window where he was standing by as he immersed himself in his work. To this day he walks around with dry-erase markers in his pocket.

It’s his passion for numbers and music that drive his creativity at both. Creativity and risk taking have been at the heart of the research he’s done (he’s been peer reviewed and published). His creativity allows him to view the numbers without tunnel vision and apply different theorems and methodologies to the problems he’s attempting to solve. And the results aren’t always better numbers… at times months of work is tossed aside and he and his team start over.

I worked for many years in the newspaper industry where their focus on numbers and risk averse culture continues to drive them to ruin. But I’ve also worked for startups who saw they couldn’t budge the numbers and totally reinvented their company, branding, products and services when the “numbers” were too difficult to improve.

Creativity and logic are not in opposition, they’re absolutely compliments of one another. Numbers can drive companies to take enormous risks, but it’s not dependent on the numbers – it’s dependent upon the culture of the company.

3 Comments

  1. 1

    I think you missed Seth’s point: the key word was “only.” If you only track numbers yet take no action, you are indeed wasting your time. And you make that very point. You watch the numbers, analyze them, and let the analysis inform your decisions. I implore product managers to look at the numbers to refine their products and their strategies. See http://appliedframeworks.com/planning

    • 2

      I read the article very, very carefully, Steve, and didn’t take it that way. He said that people that only take a look at numbers only result in higher numbers – which means that he expects them to take action. My point is that it’s not just ‘higher numbers’ that one can achieve when ‘only looking at the numbers’. The numbers can lead to far more change. It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the culture.

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