We love big numbers in marketing, but when push comes to shove, it's the small numbers that matter.
Reading time: 6 minutes
If I could offer just one piece of PR advice, what would it be?
When thinking about this, I thought that my answer would be something about how important it is to know your audience, how important trust, relevance, and authenticity is — or how everything communicates.
Surprisingly, I came to another conclusion:
It’s about how small numbers matter. How quality outshines quantity over time.
Let me explain why:
Go Small or Go Home
In corporate marketing and PR, we tend to prefer big numbers. Size matters and the bigger, the better. We talk a big talk when it comes to forging relationships and building trust, but when it comes down to it, we need to reach a critical mass of people to keep our jobs.
The internet has changed the game of marketing in profound ways, but not when it comes to big numbers. The web has made us more, not less, focused on big data, analytics, and metrics — myself included. I even moved to New York to help establish a data-driven digital agency a few years ago.
Working with big numbers in marketing has taught me something extraordinary:
In this big data world of ours, it’s the small numbers that matter.
Which Customers Do You Want?
Think of it this way:
With all other things being equal, would you rather reach a) 1,000,000 people at 1% conversion (10,000 sales) per month, or b) 100,000 people at 10% conversion (10,000 sales) per month?
This isn’t as straightforward as it might seem: Traffic acquisition in a) probably cost 10x more (advertising, publicity etc.) than in b), but on the other hand, increasing the conversion rate by just 1% will have more impact with alternative a). There are more considerations too, but we’ll come back to that.
Or would you rather reach c) 1 single customer, who becomes a customer for life, and who refers just 1 other like-minded customer per month?
Well, I would ditch a) and b) and go straight for (c any day of the week.
But first, let’s go back to a) and b):
With all other things being equal, most businesses would opt for a), even if you’d make more money with b) due to higher traffic acquisition costs in a). This is because traffic can be monetized. In short, many businesses would argue that it’s easier to make more money from 1,000,000 people than it would be to increase reach from 100,000 to 1,000,000 (and at the same time preserve the conversion rate).
But here’s something most businesses don’t want to think about:
In a), you reach 990,000 people who aren’t reacting favourably to your message. In b), you reach 90,000 people who aren’t reacting favourably to your message. That’s “better”, but still, 90,000 is a lot of people whose attention you evidently wasted. And the scariest part is that I’ve never heard anyone in marketing ever mentioning these people. If nothing else, it’s an epic waste of valuable attention!
At least in c) no valuable customer attention goes wasted. And, as it turns out, c) is far superior from a strictly mathematical perspective as well:
The first month, 1 customer attract 1 other customer. The second month, 2 customers attract 2 other customers. And so on. In theory, after 64 months, there will be more customers than there are stars in our galaxy1. Not too bad considering you only paid to acquire the first customer.
The Math Behind Viral Marketing
We’ve all seen things go viral.
We talk about how many views, shares, or likes a piece of content has gotten. 100,000,000 views on Youtube for a great song, with a great video, performed by a celebrity artist? It happens all the time these days2.
However, if you want your message to go viral, you should be searching for a number that’s as low as possible:
Cycle time (time between being “infected” and “infecting” someone else).
For a piece of content to go viral, it needs to convert at a decent level and the population size must be able to sustain its exposure, sure. But from a mathematical perspective, what really matters, is cycle time.
And the smaller the number for cycle time, the better3!
The Magic of One
If you start to look for them, you will see these small numbers everywhere. And I wonder if the number 1 isn’t the most powerful of them all?
The French poet Victor Hugo (1802-1885) said:
“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”
I promised you one piece of marketing advice, and it’s not that you should focus on designing viral campaigns or that you should aim for more customers than there are stars in our galaxy. My advice is this:
As a professional communicator in a world full of big numbers, you must believe that one single person can change everything and that each and every person you reach could be that one. You must have faith that a single message, meme, or idea can change everything. And that every action has the potential to ignite a butterfly effect beyond the limits of our imagination.
This mindset, more than any other, will help you create meaningful communication in a world obsessed with big numbers.
You may also like:
- The rate at which customers stops being customers is often referred to as churn rate. In this example, since everyone becomes lifetime customers, the churn rate is equal to how many customers that die during these 64 months, which I admit is kind of morbid. So sorry if you figured that one out already.
- Adele reached 100,000,000 views on Youtube with her hit song “Hello” in just five days, a record at the time of writing this.
- Unless we’re talking about the spread of dangerous diseases and ideas, that is.
Never miss a Doctor Spin article again?
Join 4,100+ of the best people on the planet — my SpinCTRL subscribers
(+ download 23 Tactics for Content Promotion as a signup bonus).