Exploring digital lands together

Big numbers are great, but don’t forget the small ones

Digital Growth
This is some text inside of a div block.

Humans have a lot of amazing qualities. Over time, our boundless creativity and deep emotional understanding have seen us accomplish impressive feats, from the stirring prose of Jane Austen to the timeless melodies of Chumbawamba.  

But one thing we’re not so good at is processing large numbers—except for Pythagoras, Einstein, and maybe the janitor from Good Will Hunting. 

Although our fascination with large numbers can often be misconstrued as understanding, the reality is that our brains struggle to comprehend the big numbers we frequently encounter.  

Why? Because it’s simply not the way our brains are designed. Instead, they’re built to process smaller numbers and then conceptualise bigger ones by comparing, not counting. 

We can qualify this, too. Our brains can immediately identify the numbers 1, 2 and 3, for example. Maybe even 4 and 5. But after that, we begin to process numbers by comparison.  

For instance, think about the last time you indulged in the great British pastime of joining a queue. Maybe you were trapped in the time-warp of your local Post Office, three miles from the check-out in Primark, or waiting for an overpriced beer during another inspiring England performance. When assessing if you’d ever make it to the front, did you count the number of people in the queue or compare the length? 

Ultimately, while the numbers have grown bigger and bigger, the hardware processing them (aka. our brains) have stayed the same size. Even Brian Cox’s brain isn’t that big, and he’s a Professor of Particle Physics and played keyboardist in D:Ream. 

But this isn’t a new discovery (although the fact that Brain Cox was in D:Ream might be). 

Successful marketing departments have understood the psychology behind this for quite some time, which is why you’ll often see ads comparing the price of a product or service to the price of a Starbucks coffee. The majority of us are familiar with the cost of a cuppa, and can therefore make this comparison far more effectively than trying to process the numerical cost. 

Breaking down the annual cost of a service to a daily figure is another example of this strategy in action - who wouldn’t want to protect their smartphone from just 29p per day? 

Business data has a big number problem 

The marketing approach isn’t often adopted in conversations around business data, however. 

Large numbers are typically designed to wow, but not necessarily to be understood, which underlines a problem that only deepens the more this number is repeated without any clear indication of its meaning or how it could be improved. 

We’ve all heard these kinds of big-number vanity metrics; hundreds of thousands of users (who never become repeat customers), millions of visitors (who didn’t engage with the site), a billion hours of content streamed (including half a billion hours of ads). 

Oh, and not forgetting the one you will often come across in tech circles - a million isn’t cool anymore, it’s all about a billion! But this is just another example of how these large numbers lack meaning. We can’t quite conceptualise how big these numbers are, and can’t properly comprehend the difference between them. In other words, a million is still pretty cool - when was the last time you saw a million of anything?!

That’s not to say there isn’t a place for these numbers in your business. There’s no harm in using impressive-sounding totals like 100,000 of X or one million of Y as aspirational goals, and these often serve as great motivators. When applied correctly, they can even provide an organisation with a North Star metric - but this requires a clear comprehension of what is being communicated and, just as importantly, how it is impacted. 

But what is the value of your number? what impact does it have? and what can be done to influence it? To answer these questions, you must present and communicate the meaning of these numbers in a way that helps your team to drive change most effectively. 

The advantages of smaller numbers

When it comes to internal communications, perhaps organisations should be taking a page from the marketing playbook. 

For example, what’s more effective: telling employees your business objectives, or breaking down these targets into smaller bite-sized messages that everyone can get on board with? 

The aim isn’t just for your team to understand the metric, but for each individual to understand how they can impact it. Perhaps a similar approach could be used in sales tactics, too - strong communication skills are key to the sales process after all! 

But it’s not just about making big numbers smaller. Instead, think it of more like providing an additional set of smaller numbers that provide context and support the information provided. 

To better understand what this looks like in practice, let’s take a look at an example. 

Had a great month of sales? Awesome - how are you going to communicate this with your team? 

Team update option A: 

Congratulations to everyone, this month we hit over a million pounds in sales!

Team update option B: 

Congratulations to everyone, this month we hit over a million pounds in sales! That means that every person who walked through our doors spent, on average, £2,370! 

*In our best quiz host voice*  Which will it be, A…or B? 

If you picked option B, congratulations - you’ve made it through to the next round. But why does this work better? 

It comes back to that idea of meaning. Breaking down the ‘million’ figure into something smaller and more comparable provides the vital context teams need to understand their ability to influence. 

The focus isn’t necessarily on the £1million but on how to increase the average value of each customer. And thinking about how you can impact the latter is far less intimidating - it’s often as simple as some kind of upsell. 

Utilising smaller, more comparable numbers within your internal teams can increase the efficacy of information retention and improve communication across the board. Data storytelling and visualisation techniques may prove particularly effective here. What’s more, it’s the small numbers that often feature in A/B testing, and it’s the incremental improvements via these experiments that drive your product or service forward. 

Or, to put it another way, small measurements and improvements lead to a big change!

So when you’re working on your next project, don’t forget about the small numbers. Sure big numbers are great, but it’s the small ones that will ultimately have the greater impact in achieving your overarching goals. 

Need help streamlining your data management?
Get in touch with us today.
Contact us
Contact us
Subscribe to newsletter

Subscribe to receive our latest insights to your inbox.