September 28, 2015
What is number fixation? Let’s start with a story. Over the last year, I’ve been trying to gain weight through a new diet and exercise routine. As part of this, I have been weighing myself daily to measure the results and track progress toward my goal. For the first time in my life, I have actually achieved a weight that is acceptable for my height. In the last month I started to slide backward losing some of the weight I’d gained. Despite this loss, I remained in a healthy weight zone and also felt generally healthy.
Yet, despite staying generally healthy, guess what I found myself obsessively focused on? That’s right: the amount I weighed. My focus this last month had shifted to obsessively watch the specific number of pounds I weigh. Lost in this obsessive focus was the bigger context: the reason I wanted to gain weight wasn’t to achieve some number of pounds, but instead to be healthier.
In other words, I was suffering from Number Fixation.
The Problem of Number Fixation
I see this problem with my clients all the time, though the number they are fixated on isn’t my weight. They embark on a marketing campaign, attempting to achieve some goal. They use numbers to measure that goal (as they should). That is great at first, but somewhere along the way the focus on the goal sometimes shifts to worrying obsessively about a specific number.
That number they focus on may vary. It may be a specific number of visitors, an ideal bounce rate, a certain percentage of traffic from social media, a desirable load speed, an exact click through rate, a target dollar amount of sales, or whatever. Some number has them in a trance.
Why Number Fixation?
Let’s face it, it is easy to get painfully fixated on a specific number and lose sight of the bigger picture. We humans can’t keep big things in our heads very easily. That is why we chunk things down to the smallest size possible. A goal? That is often too big a chunk to keep in focus. A specific number? That is easy to look at; it is a small thing that we can focus on.
This is true whether we are talking about a marketing campaign or an exercise routine. When your focus shifts and it becomes all about that number, this is to your detriment (or your organization’s). By fixating on the number, you stop fixating on the goal. And, then surprisingly you see that the goal begins to not be met because all of your effort and energy (and budget) went to support that number. Worse still, you focus so much on a number that you forget to see that your goal might have been achieved, just not to the specific degree desired.
Why We Use Numbers
Numbers, in and of themselves, don’t really matter all that much (unless it is 42, in which case all bets are off). The reason we track numbers is because those numbers do help us chunk down that bigger goal. With numbers, we can more easily tell a story and track progress toward some goal. How well did that marketing campaign perform? Was my exercise program working or not? Did I meet my monthly sales goals? How many calories did I eat today? Did the new product features reduce my churn rate? Numbers can help to answer these questions.
The number apart from the story and that goal isn’t all that interesting. Without a story or goal, the number has no context and means nothing. Is a 7% click through rate good or bad? Is a 3 second load time good or bad? Is 1,478 pageviews good or bad? The numbers don’t tell us anything, unless we put them in context:
- The click through rate from organic conversions now is 7%, but before we embarked on the SEO campaign your organic search click through rate was 2%. The numbers tell a story of success toward a goal (more traffic from search!).
- The click through rate for the main call to action is 7%, but a year ago it was 12%. The numbers tell a story that something went bad over the last year (really bad).
In some respects, we all “know” this to be true. But I’ve had enough conversations with clients (and enough self observations) to know that we often lose sight of this rather obvious truth we all know. At first, watching the numbers does what it should do: it helps monitor our progress toward a goal. But sometimes, we start to watch the numbers just a little too closely. Our focus moves away from that bigger goal, that big chunk that we struggle to keep in mind, and instead it becomes all about that number. The bigger goal, the context, falls away and soon, all we are left with is a single number and that number holds our entire focus.
Don’t Make It Too Simple
Worth noting is that those stories are too simplistic. One number as a measurement of a goal isn’t really enough. So what if we had a 7% click through rate to a page if the page people clicked to has a 98% exit rate? Similarly, if my goal is to gain weight and be healthier, my weight is only one number that matters. Other numbers, like hours slept, matter too.
If we try to keep the numbers simple (with just a single number), then it becomes amazingly easy to fall into the number fixation trap. That goal I want to accomplish becomes all about that number. If, instead, we broaden that just a bit to include more numbers it becomes slightly easier to remember the bigger picture. We can remember that it is about our main goal, and that goal is supported by these numbers. Of course, we don’t want so many numbers to keep track of because then we run into other data analysis traps.
Keep A Range In Mind
With my weight gain, it isn’t really a specific number I have to hit. Instead, there is a healthy range. So long as I’m in that range, I’ve achieved my goal and I won’t achieve my goal more by getting higher up on the range.
The same is true for conversion rates, traffic levels, click through rates, bounce rates, and more. There is a range you want to hit. If you want to improve your website’s speed, you want to aim to bring you speed under a 2 second load time. Whether you hit 1.2 seconds or 1.5 seconds isn’t as important as you being in this healthy range. Or, stated another way, whether your current load speed is at 8 seconds or 10 seconds doesn’t matter because you are outside of the healthy range.
Combating Number Fixation
Number fixation is going to happen to all of us who live in a world of numbers at some point. Guess what? We do live in a world of numbers. How many followers do you have? How many likes? How many retweets or shares did your latest post get? How many emails are in your inbox? The easier it becomes to see numbers, the more likely it is for us to become obsessed with some of those numbers.
I see part of my job as helping my clients fight this affliction of number fixation. In the marketing analysis work my team and I do, we present a lot of numbers to clients and we run the risk of having people fixate on a certain number, losing sight of that larger goal.
But, to combat this before the number gets presented to a client we ask ourselves whether the number is meaningful. Is that number in support of telling stories and tracking progress toward the client’s goals? Are we putting that number in context and giving an idea of the healthy range for that number? Are we presenting multiple numbers to help tell a story or are we just presenting one number for clients to fixate on?
Of course, the best way I’ve found to combat number fixation is to do everything you can to keep the focus on the bigger picture. You have to keep that goal simple though. Chunk the goal down as far as you can so that the goal can be the object of fixation, not the numbers that help you track progress toward a goal.
Because, when you get right down to it – the numbers themselves aren’t really what matters. What matters is several numbers coming together to tell a story about what kind of progress is being made toward a goal and that goal, truly, is where the focus belongs.