If You Play the Numbers Game, You Will Always Lose When Trying to Change the World

Why do we focus so much on attendance numbers when trying to make change?  The truth is that numbers can deceive us and give us a false sense of progress.  Let me give you an example.

Recently and event was held in Phoenix that two or three “popular” community activists got behind to try to institute change on something.  Between these connected people they mustered up roughly 5,400 people to invite.  This includes the reach of their reach within a social graph.  If there are 3.5 million people in Phoenix, their effective reach is 00.15%.  Significantly less than 1%.  In reality, let’s cut it down to their audience, the creative class.  In Phoenix that would be about 500,000 people.  So their reach in the creative class is about 1.06%.  Roughly one percent.

Of the 5,400 people they invited to participate, 175 decided to stand behind them with another 235 saying maybe they would participate and nearly 1,254 flat out said no.  Another 3,700 were apathetic and gave no response.  If we go by numbers the organizers were proud that the day of the event 300 people showed up.  They were effective in getting 00.06% of the creative class to stand behind them.

So on the surface 300 people showing up seems great and inflates the ego, but in reality .06% is a miserable turnout.  The reason you lose when you make it a numbers game is because then the focus is only the numbers and someone who is paying attention can easily see that the numbers suck.

300 people showing up might make an organizer feel accomplished, but to the educated their delight in the numbers only highlights them as the paper tiger that they seemingly are, thus negating most momentum they seem to be gaining.  The real problem is that trying to use the attendance measuring stick is an old economy way to think of things.  It is the epitome of corporate.  Events and organizers looking to see their effectiveness based on their attendance are missing the point.

Stop looking at “how many people we have” and instead start asking “do we have the right people?”, “what impact are we making?”, “what value are we adding”.  The only time attendance should matter is if you are charging ticket fees and attendance relates to your bottom line.  At that point you are changing the world or are you simply providing entertainment (which is totally acceptable).

Random Sidebar
It is interesting that there were only 12 disciples.  Imagine how popular Christianity might have been if there would have been more of a focus on attendance.  In fact, maybe the demise of modern Christianity could be that pastors are more concerned with attendance instead of making an impact?
Some people might ask that a better number than the time before should count for something as it is an improvement.  They would be right, but they still miss the point.  What do numbers mean?  Even if they are trending up?  The truth is when you are focused on numbers you are focused on your own self and not on changing the world.  Would you rather impact the people close to you or just be surrounded by legions of cheerleaders?  Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson have lots of fans.  Is that what we aspire to be?


  1. I completely agree that number counting should not be the end all measurement for success, but I think you are mixing topics in your percentage breakdown.

    You want to have people at events, gatherings, talks, whatever, that have some sort of interest in the topic. A roomful of “tourists” has little impact. But having one lone passionate person show up isn’t much of a victory either. Quantity and Quality have to strike a balance that varies based on the topic, and I agree too often Quantity becomes the sole focus.

    In some events, the goal is simply to spread the word through social challenges to find those people who are interested; who are passionate. You can’t find them directly, so you make yourself easier to find. With some luck and help you find some number that get involved in whatever you’re trying to do. But looking at percentage results for this sort of communication effort is as much of a windmill as looking at overall attendance numbers.

    Did the people who attend get something out of it? Is there a lasting impact on the people or community? Did you (as an organizer) learn something from it? Those sort of results are where you should focus in the end.

  2. I can’t remember the details, and my google-fu is clearly slipping. But I remember one album being described as “Only 200 people bought the first pressing of [album title] – but all 200 of them went on to start a band of their own.”

  3. I think it’s important to adequately understand what you’re trying to accomplish and to set appropriate goals up front so that success (or failure) could be measured afterward.

    Thorough visualization of the next way point allows for the invitation/inspiration of the right parties to join us on our journey. This is where we’re trying to go. This is what we’re trying to do. These are the people we need to get.

    Just as a lack of quantifiable goals prior to the event results in crappy numbers, that lack of vision also renders post-event evaluations unable to truly reflect the outcome. It’s an open invitation to bias.

    But I see your point, Derek. This trend of right person, right place, right time is being echoed… among at least one of the larger employers in the valley right now.

    Hope springs eternal, sir.

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