June 09, 2014

Last week, a clever little real estate agency in Seattle called Redfin did something cool with really big numbers.


Under the headline, “Which billionaire could buy your city?,” Real Estate Data Analyst Tommy Unger calculated how many houses select billionaires could buy in cities like Boston, Seattle, and Napa, CA. 


What made this report so interesting—enough that it was picked up by sites like Mediaite and Drudge Report—is that it put huge, mind boggling numbers into context so mere mortals like me could understand them.


The Walton family, for example, could take their combined Walmart billions and buy every single house in Seattle.  All 241,450 of them.  Oh, and they’d still have about $43 billion in pocket money should they decide to stroll around the town they just bought.  


Similarly, the Koch brothers could combine their wealth to buy every house in Atlanta.  Bill Gates, meanwhile, could singlehandedly snap up every house in Boston.  



Unger’s article is so smart because he takes something everyone likes to talk about—rich people’s vast fortunes—and turns them into things we can actually see. 


I don’t have a clue what the Walton family’s $154.8 billion fortune looks like in real life.  But I can absolutely envision all the houses in Seattle because I’ve seen them when flying over the city on approach to SeaTac.  That big, gaudy number suddenly has sharp outlines and a scale I can work with.  It means something now. 


Often our clients come to us with the same kind of big numbers.  They’ve invested $1 billion here.  They’ve reduced wait times 40% there.  They’ve cut their carbon emissions by 6 million tons.  And so on. 


Yes, these numbers are vital to any company’s story about what it’s doing in the world.  But without a framework for understanding them, they’re often ignored, misunderstood, or, worse, called into question. 


Why should I care that you invested $1 billion in something when you’re a $200 billion company?  Is $1 billion really the best you could do, Mr. Scrooge?  It sounds like a drop in the bucket.


When you put that number into context, however, it’s a different story.


If a hypothetical $1 billion investment translates into an average wait time of 38 seconds when you call our customer service line, that’s impressive. 


If it means you never have to drive more than 20 miles to find one of our stores, that’s impressive. 


If it means the average customer bill is now $16 less each month, that’s impressive.


You’ll notice the numbers above didn’t just provide context; they also added a specific, tangible benefit for the customer.  This is one way of making your big numbers do double duty whenever possible. 


Never expect numbers to tell your story for you.  Make them tell your story by giving them substance and meaning.  When you do, they become more than just numbers.  They become visual, visceral storylines that help your customers understand who you are and what you’re doing. 


In short, context makes your big numbers finally do what you hoped they would do all along.   


Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go buy an apartment in my neighborhood before Mark Zuckerberg gets any crazy ideas. 


You may want to do the same. 




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