ProTip Tuesday #14: Numbers are not Goals

If you are a digital professional of any kind, it is only a matter of time before you’re in a meeting and somebody says, “Our goal in this project is to increase [any statistic] by 25%.” When that happens, stop everything and start talking about a new goal.


If you heard that people who do well on IQ tests are more successful, would you memorize the answers before the test?

If you learned that fat people have stronger muscles, would you start over-eating?

In other words, if Thing A causes Thing B, would you do Thing B and expect Thing A?

I hope not, because it’s wrong.

Measurement is not the same as performance.

When we make things like apps or websites or products, we often measure stuff, like Analytics, to see how people use what we’ve made. That’s good.

To improve our results we create new features or strategies (Thing A) and watch the numbers to see how they change (Thing B). That’s also good.

However, as soon as you start focusing on your numbers without understanding where they came from, you’ve made a wrong turn. Now you’re trying to improve numbers, rather than the creations those numbers are measuring.

And that is dangerous.

Numbers can be deceptive.

It is very possible (and easy) to get more traffic to your site and hurt your business at the same time, by spending a lot of money advertising to the wrong people.

You can increase your conversion rate by changing the way you measure it, even though it doesn’t change your actual sales at all. I have had a real-life job where the executives preferred one method of measurement because it looked more optimistic, which is insane.

It is also very possible to make more people click something (i.e. — improve your Bounce Rate) and spend more time on your site, by making it more confusing or adding obstacles, like Forbes’ ad/quote page.

All of those are bad/dumb ideas if they don’t serve a greater purpose. But they will make your numbers look “better”.

So next time you’re in a meeting and someone announced the goal of improving a random statistic by some random percentage, ask “How should we change to improve those numbers?”

Then set a new goal that actually means something useful.

If they look perplexed when you ask, or avoid saying how it should be done, or if they expect you to figure that out later — “that’s your job!” — they’re basically saying, “we want to be more successful. Do something about that.”

I have two typical responses to the “number goals” situation:

1)“Ok, so you want that number to be higher, and you don’t care what I have to destroy to make that happen?”


2) “Ok, so when I get to that number, should I stop?”

It tends to lead the conversation down a more enlightened path, after a bit of friendly explanation.

… and that’s why numbers are not goals.

Have a great week!


If you liked this ProTip, try ProTip Tuesday #15: Be One With The Button.

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