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


Figure 3. “22 million adults live at home”

The ad states that over 22 million American 18-34 year olds live at home, so parents should give them a subscription to the publication to smarten them up and move them out. I don’t know about you, but 22 million seems like a BIG number which infers the stay at home behaviour is normal. Again, they’ve reduced anxiety rather than increased it. 

Why is anxiety important?

I’ve mentioned anxiety a couple of times, and that’s because when we use herding techniques we are tapping into a fear of missing out (loss aversion); an anxiety about being separated from the herd.

As marketers we want to use anxiety in a couple of ways: we want to create anxiety about not following what others are doing (you will be isolated) and we want to reduce anxiety about what it means to follow (there’s safety in numbers).

Getting social proof right

If it hasn’t struck you by now, the secret to communicating social proof is how you contextualise the number. Context can be shaped by you or you can rely on your customer to use their existing frame of reference.

It could be argued, for instance, that 22 million is actually a small percentage of the American population (<7%) and that readers will know this, but judging by how prominently the number is displayed in the ad I think they were trying to make it seem like a big problem. It is much safer to take control of contextualising the number yourself.  

How? It means looking at whatever numbers you are thinking about promoting and playing around with how they should best be represented in order to normalise the desired behaviour. This could mean you choose to use a percentage or fraction rather than whole number, say “y people do not” “instead of saying “x people do”, or ditch numbers all together and using labels like “best seller” or “most popular”.

You may even take a lesson that probably saves the “11,000” ad above from failure – choose the right typeface to infer the number is big. Make it actually look big.

Social proof is a very powerful behavioural technique but also one of the easiest to get wrong. Remember to normalise the behaviour you want to see and you’ll be on the right track.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.



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