What statistics and language have in common and what Marketers could learn from it.

Delusion about absolutes.

In order to be able to discuss things and achieve things we need the ability to give things names and these names need to have a roughly shared meaning to everyone in the conversation. You are probably thinking, “If only” and you’d be right on the money because in reality very few things if any, obey strict rules that make them identical to others in their class.

Statistics are a mathematical manifestation of the same issue in that they predominantly define averages which are then used to define loosely every member of the group.
A “Large business” has a turnover between x and y, yet you may hear heated discussions about big business that seems to assume they are exactly the same because they are described as “big”.

People will talk about Americans, Israelis, Russians in precisely the same way, yet how could you possibly describe an American other than in terms of where he lives.

More than half of a tree is totally integrated with the earth but we refer to a tree as though it were a unique standalone object.

Even a person contains a very high proportion of non-human matter in the form of organisms that live within us sometimes carrying out critical functions for our health.

In all of these conversations people are very content to live with generalisations as though they were facts and indeed they are confident that on the law of averages they will be right more often than wrong and even to the point that they forget that the subject matter is not in fact as absolute as it sounds at all.

Every time a Mathematician, that master of absolutes, sits down to think great thoughts he will begin with a hypothesis such as, “all cars are 105 time the weight of their owner within an error factor of 5%” then he will write something like “Let’s assume that all cars are cubes” and there goes the theory. From here on in we are in the land of make-believe.

As Sam Savage[i] puts it, apologies Sam if I have reinterpreted your wise words, Knowing that the average depth of the Colorado river is 2.5 feet wouldn’t save you drowning in a 30 foot pool, but quite possibly the opposite. In fact, by and large, averages and everything built with them or relying on them is either useless, fatally flawed or seriously dangerous.

Don’t be average

Business decisions based on averages are usually also heavily flawed and especially in Marketing. The fact that the average customer arriving at this page with x=y leaves without purchasing does not mean that this customer would not spend a lot of cash left to her own devices. The fact that I searched for women’s stuff yesterday does not mean I am gay, it means someone’s birthday is approaching. If people were nearly so predictable there would be no Marriage Counsellors, no shrinks and probably even no jails, certainly no marketers.
Margaret Thatcher PM of the UK has often been misunderstand for her comment;

“They are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and [end p29] there are families and no government can do anything except through people”

While we all know that she was indeed against the state doing a lot to help, what she meant was that a government can only address individuals and deal with their individual needs. it cant deal with society with a brush stroke. Another way to put it is this; while helping the individuals and families with their problems you can help society, but it doesn’t work the other way around.

Forming your product or marketing strategy needs a little more thought than a blanket assumption based on a handful of dubious averages, even when the data is current and verified and there is still no substitute for one-to-one direct marketing and possibly no excuse either in an age when we can waste so much cash on Machine Learning for so little gain. What we should be exploring is talking to and above all, listening to customers one-on-one every time they visit our website and giving them precisely what they want. I hypothesise that we would be rewarded handsomely.

[i] Sam Savage A Stanford Professor and author of “The Flaw Of Averages “ a book from John Wiley & Sons, published June 2009 https://web.stanford.edu/~savage/faculty/savage/

Ed has enjoyed a dual career moving backwards and forwards between leadership roles in software engineering and transforming marketing functions.

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