When numbers can backfire on you

When numbers can backfire on you

We see numbers in ad campaigns everywhere, but when can a number backfire on you?

Marketers love Herding, but beware…  

Herding is the behavioural principle that recognises that when in doubt, we follow what others have done or are doing. We flock like a herd. It means we go to restaurants that look busy, “Like” already popular brands and buy books that have become best sellers. 

Knowing the value of this social proof, marketers often get excited and emblazon their communications with numbers. Here’s an example from an accounting software provider.


Figure 1. “11,000 Accountants ad”

They clearly think 11,000 is an impressive number. But does their market? 

Another example, this time from an investment firm who is hoping to drive sign-ups. What do you think, is 1440 compelling?


Figure 2. “1440 sign-ups”

Herding trap 1: Your number is less impressive than you think it is

The common trap with using social proof in communications is that the number has to be impressive otherwise it becomes negative social proof. In other words, you are effectively signalling that you are less popular than your customer might have imagined otherwise.  

Herding trap 2: Normalising the wrong behaviour

Another common trap is using numbers that encourage the wrong behaviour. An anti-litter marketing campaign in the UK inadvertently encouraged people to drop more rubbish by showcasing how much garbage was left at a bus shelter, normalising the undesired behaviour.

I am working with a client at the moment in the insurance industry and in one of their ads they talk about the large number of Australians who are underinsured. Bad move. Rather than customers processing the intended message i.e. you should do something about it, they are actually conveying to customers that it is normal not to be insured.

Instead of creating anxiety they have inadvertently reduced it.

Here’s another example from Business Week