Tracking, the flawed belief in statistics

Tracking is the basis for everything online these days. We track what content gets the most clicks to make sure we create better content. We track the ads we run to make sure our ads are targeted to the right people and that they convert well. We use tracking in all aspects of our lives to make better decisions and take the right action. But it’s not working, is it. No matter how long you stare at those numbers they don’t give you a golden bullet. So what’s wrong with this theory? Everything.

While tracking makes our decisions gradually better, tracking does not make any new connections. Do you think RedBull is tracking any direct ROI on sponsoring Felix Baumgartner’s record breaking sky dive from the edge of space? No. But I think few people would argue that they didn’t get more than their share of media coverage. Very few marketing schemes get that kind of eye-ball-action, but the important thing is that tracking would never lead you to invest in such a venture.

Neither would tracking lead you to think that a generous return policy could generate profits. Yet every single report tell us that it does.

In the 50’s a young designer made a nondescript electronics company a house hold name by creating memorable and user friendly designs for their products. The company was Braun, and the designer was Dieter Rams. Rams, who’ve since been credited as an inspiration for designers behind cars and even Apple, didn’t do it by tracking.

There is nothing wrong with tracking. In fact, without tracking it’s extremely hard to reach a goal, once it’s set. But tracking is quite probably holding you back. If tracking is the basis for your strategy, you’re probably not seeing the full market. That light at the end of the tunnel might turn out to be a train.

Strategy is taking the broad view of a business and aiming your organization. Tactics are how we get there. Tactics make great use of tracking and statistics. Strategy does not. Depending on strategy will keep you constantly running to catch up with the world, because the numbers can only really show you what used to happen. And only in a very specific situation at that. It’s harder to argue without numbers. Which is why most people eventually stop trying. Next time you are in a meeting and someone offers a contrary view of a situation you might want to think about it a few minutes. Don’t throw out your innovation because of the result of a skewed question asked by bored data miners.

3 thoughts on “Tracking, the flawed belief in statistics

  1. Yes. Statistics are merely a numerical image of the past. However, tracking data allows us to predict the future. The belief that humans are in some way unique, unpredictable beings, is simply wrong. Understanding how things have previously worked is great insights into what needs to take place for those circumstances to have a different outcome in the future. I think the major problem rather lies within the short term trust people place in real time data. Optimization shall not be a part of a strategy, however, explanations of circumstances leading to past results should.
    Data should not blind us from our visions, nor shall it be the sole component of our decisions. However, it has to be a part of the function. Thus, the skewed question from the bored data miner shall be taken seriously, however un-witty it might be to an agenda of a clear vision.


    1. As you said, tracking and statistics is great for optimization. I’ll go as far as to say it’s crucial.
      But a lot of things are really hard, bordering on impossible, to track. And a lot of those things cost money. Without numbers this is usually a hard thing to get. What’s the return of happy employees? A lot. What’s the profit in being available where your customers are, e.g. social media? Huge.
      But none of these are really trackable. Some firms say they are and make “reports” where they “interview a median customer”. But that’s just bullshit. They’re really just compiling common sense answers so that middle managers have numbers to point to. Bad statistics to build bad decisions upon. See every large companys social media strategy or customer support…


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