Why do people believe every number they see? Tonight social media guru David Armano rebroadcast a tweet claiming Razorfish generated $18.8 million in incremental revenue for H&R Block. It’s possible; H&R Block takes in about $4 billion annually, so a 0.47% lift from online chatter could happen.
So we tweeted David back, asking how agencies such as Razorfish measure social media results, and he responded he didn’t know. Meanwhile thousands of David’s friends were forwarding the stat around to others online. This is not to poke at David, who is a truly brilliant and generous agency mind and has illustrated the nuances of social networks in ways that might make Edward Tufte blush. Rather, it points out the human fallacy of numbers.
We like numbers. 50% off. Buy 1, get 1 free. Perfect 800 on SAT. You’re a 10. Numbers make us feel good, and if tipped just so — say, $3.99 instead of $4.00 on a mocha latte — we rush to respond. Numbers can even be fake and we take action. Look at the cover of Oprah or Men’s Health or other quasi-entertainment magazines and you’ll see lots of numbers — 99 ways to lose weight, 7 steps to better sex, 3 new brownie recipes. Are 7 steps to sex too much or too little? Doesn’t matter. We’ll buy the magazine, read about it, and then lose weight while eating brownies.
Numbers lie. Yet numbers illuminate the truth about our inner needs. We yearn to predict the future exactly and if you tell us you can, we’ll believe you — at least 87.3% of the time.
Update: David Deal, VP of marketing at Razorfish, wrote us to note the $18.8 million figure was wrong — an error by a panelist who pulled unrelated data and attributed it by mistake to H&R Block. Thanks, David, for the update.