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Why Are We So Obsessed With Our Numbers?

Whether it’s the number of followers we have on our blogs or twitter, the number comments or retweets, or our Amazon rankings or Nielsen BookScan sales figures—we writers have the tendency to obsess over our numbers.

We can deny it all we want. We can claim that those numbers don’t matter, that we’re blogging for the pure joy of it, that we don’t ever notice how many twitter followers we have, or that we never pay attention to how well (or poorly) our books are selling.

But that would be a lie (at least for most of us). In all my travels around the cyberworld, I see people all the time who get excited when they hit a milestone number. I see tweets like, “Only 1 more follower until I reach 500. Who will it be?” Conversely, I see things like, “I’m stuck at 89. Why won’t more people follow me?”

Numbers matter to us. In fact, they usually matter a lot.

But why?

Whether we like it or not, numbers are a way to measure success.

Some may argue that success is defined by each individual, that what might constitute successful blogging or book publication to me might be different for you. You might derive success simply from the accomplishment of posting regularly and connecting with a few readers. Someone else might define success by actually completing a book and seeing it for sale on Amazon regardless of how well it does.

Yes, we’ll all define success differently.

However, no matter how we define success on a personal level, there’s still a broader definition of success on a professional level.

In the professional world, in most careers, success is measured in terms of numbers. Whether it’s a baseball player’s statistics or a student’s GPA or ACT scores, whether it’s the box office sales of a movie or how fast a runner completes the 100m dash, numbers are important. We’re conditioned by the world around us to pay attention to numbers as a measure of success.

And in the writing industry, numbers matter too. In fact, most decisions boil down to numbers. It’s simply a tangible way to measure how well something/someone is doing. My publisher wants to see a baseline number of sales from each of their authors. They keep a detailed report of my sales figures down to the exact number and penny sold. The numbers definitely have a bearing on the future of my career with my publisher.

Writers do indeed need to be conscious of numbers. As much as we’d like to stick our heads in the sand and pretend statistics don’t matter, we won’t help our careers if we dismiss them. But neither should we obsess. Instead, here are a few things we can do:

Move toward a balanced approach. I personally have found a balance that works for me. I check statistics from time to time just to see how things are going and if I’m on track. I keep a big picture view in mind, but I don’t pay attention to every single move up or down.

Maintain professionalism. Refrain from posting about our numbers—either negatively or positively. In other words, don’t boast or complain. Quiet dignity is often the best way to present ourselves publicly and professionally. Save the excitement or disappointment for our inner circle.

Motivate ourselves. Let the numbers (or lack thereof) help push us to look honestly at what we’re doing and whether it’s working the way we want it to. If our numbers are decreasing, what can we do to stop the downward spiral? If they’re stagnant, we can evaluate if we’ve reached our ceiling or whether there’s still more we can do to climb higher.

Make the people behind numbers the priority. Part of the reason we should refrain from talking about our numbers is because it makes the followers/readers we already have think they’re just another number in our quest to gain more. Behind every profile and number is a real person with real struggles. We should do our best to make our current followers feel valued.

Model early the attitude we want later. We can start early in our careers developing a healthy approach to watching our numbers, keeping an eye on them, learning from them, challenging ourselves with them—but not letting them control us. Hopefully the balanced attitude we develop will hold us in check later when we have even more numbers to worry about.

My Summary: We should all have our own personal definitions of what success looks like to us—and that may or may not involve numbers. But regardless of how we define success on a personal level, if we hope to have a professional writing career, then we have to accept that the professional definition does involve numbers, and usually lots of them.

My philosophy? Don’t sweat it. But be savvy.

Be honest! Do you pay attention to your numbers (followers, sales figures, etc.)? Why do you think so many writers obsess over their numbers? How do you keep a balanced approach?

36 comments:

  1. I so agree with you when you talk about our followers feeling like they're just a number in a quest to gain more followers. This is exactly why I don't harp on about my following, on the blog or Twitter. I'm very proud with my blog following but I'd be stupid to keep announcing it. I value each and every one them and only wish I had time to visit them all on a regular basis.

    I have to say, I get quite frustrated when I see tweets asking for RT's for followers to get them up to that milestone. Don't they value the ones they already have?

    It is very important to me to know that my blog is appreciated and my following indicates that it is. I very rarely check stats, but the interaction one receives through comments is, to me, equally as important as the post itself.

    CJ xx

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  2. It's all about content. Is your blog, tweet, book, etc., worth reading? Does it satisfy the needs and interests of readers? If it does, I think the numbers will take care of themselves, and probably usually move upward.

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  3. I don't pay attention to my numbers. Probably because I still have my "day" job and my paycheck isn't dependent on who is buying my books.

    I think that is why many authors focus on it. Less followers= less sales. I don't mean that in a negative way. I mean it in a business sense.

    There is so much pressure to "build a brand". The number of blog followers, tweet followers, Facebook friends, random people on the street who smile at us, are all (in our minds, at least) a reflection of our brand building progress.

    I love your point about developing a healthy attitude about the numbers early. I think that is terrific advice!

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  4. I'm absolutely obsessed with my blog numbers at the moment because they've been stagnant for ages. It got worse this week because I just put a few ads on the blog for the first time (I'm really struggling financially just now) and I want to a) check that hasn't put readers off and b) get more readers so more of them will click through the ads! I keep trying to tell myself there's nothing more I can do about it and to just keep blogging and focus on content, but that's really hard right now...

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  5. You know me, Jody, I'm a numbers person, but for me it's a question of which numbers are more important to take note of and when to watch them. Right now, early in my career, I'm simply not worried about how many followers I have on any given site. That can make a person crazy. But if I had a book coming out soon, I might start watching those numbers more closely. If I already had a book out, I might be watching Amazon rankings and others a little more closely. So, for me, it's about timing. It would be time wasted to obsess over how many comments I received on a blog post at this point - although I will admit, I love it when people stop by and say hello and add to the conversation/topic I'm pondering.

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  6. I usually pay attention more to comments than followers. But like you said, I don't sweat it. I like the blogosphere and am definitely using it as a professional tool, but it's also really good for me because you all are the only writers I talk to. (online writers)
    Wonderful post! I don't know how your mind works in such an objective way that you can write these posts like this. LOL It's great!

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  7. I took the followers panel off my blog for this very reason. I found myself focusing on raising numbers instead of doing what I had fun with -- talking about writing and connecting with other writers. It can really mess with your head if you get too caught up in it. Even when you're doing well, it can feel like you're not doing enough and cause stress.

    Book sales numbers are the same. I get weekly updates, and sometimes I wonder if I should just file them away and not read them. Numbers go up and down (that's just the biz) and my emotions often go with them. It can make you feel like you're not doing enough even when you're doing all you can.

    Numbers are good as a general guideline, but I try not to let them take over. I did that at first and was miserable. Much better now that they're just a tool to help motivate me and remind me that I'm making progress in what I love doing.

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  8. Great post. I think most new writers, including myself, pay attention to numbers because it's all we have if we aren't published yet. But I agree with what you're saying. See the big picture and remember the people behind the numbers, because we are all numbers to someone else too. Whoa. So deep early so in the morning. :)

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  9. Honestly, I wouldn't care half as much about the numbers if it weren't for the fact that the industry dictates that I have to care. I love connecting in a real way with readers, through comments, tweets, emails, even the occasional phone call. But yet, when my agent tells me I need to be building my platform, I find myself becoming more and more obsessed with the numbers. I check Google analytics, I watch the feedburner number and feel a pit in my stomach when it plummets. I am frequently out of balance these days, far too concerned about the numbers, when I'd much rather focus on the quality of my writing and building genuine relationships. It doesn't help that I am a triple Type A, so when someone tells me I need to do something, I go at it 110%, which leads to an unhealthy unbalanced focus. It's truly a battle for me.

    Thanks for helping me put it all in perspective, Jody.

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  10. I care about the numbers... mostly because I know that if my book doesn't sell well, I won't get another book contract. Sad, but reality. This is a great post!

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  11. Saw a link to this on Twitter and I'm glad I did. Such a great post! Thank you for sharing!

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  12. I check my stats daily, but only ONCE or TWICE. That's down from checking hourly. I guess I'm in detox.

    I think the reason stats are important to me is because I'm still insecure with my writing. I'm just not sure anybody really wants to read it. Every time my blog stats go up, I'm surprised! :)

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  13. I definitely pay attention. My Twitter following is growing nicely, but my blog has been slow. Although in the last week, I've noticed a jump in followers as I put up more relevant posts.

    Today's post made me think of a Twitter comment I had a few weeks ago, asking me why I judge success by how much my daily word count was. She wanted to know why content wasn't more important.

    Of course content is the most important. There are days when I write less than 1K but I'm happy because I know it's quality. But just as you said, like or not, numbers matter, and word count is one of the best ways to show progress, or lack of.

    Great post!

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  14. I'm not a numbers person. I'm a words person. :)

    As long as I'm writing and am authentic, I'm happy. If people want to "follow" me or eventualy buy my books, that's their choice. I'm not comfortable asking for followers, that seems like a forced relationship, and a bit insecure, to put it diplomatically.

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  15. I get excited when I have a new blog follower or twitter follower, and of course would like more, but I stopped stressing about it a couple months ago. Right around the time that I kind of put things on hold so I could hammer out my draft. And since I've come back--on an altered modified/more balanced schedule, my stress level has stayed down. More of a happy to have the comments and friends I have. Now, I have a feeling that will all get jacked up again if/when I get an agent or decide to go self-pub. Then I'll be nuts all over again :-)

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  16. I know I need a huge increase in my blog numbers if I'm ever going to "make it" professionally. But I keep telling myself that it's all in God's time. If I just keep Him in the forefront and strive for excellence.

    I don't check the numbers as often as I used to.

    That said, if anyone feels led to follow or subscribe to my blog . . . ;)

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  17. I agree 100%. It's as if the popularity game that begun in middle school continues throughout peoples' lives, even unto their blogs.

    Just as it's the quality of a person that matters rather than the amount of friends they have, it's the quality of our posts/tweets that count toward true success than the number of followers we have. Just because someone has plenty of friends doesn't mean that person is a genuine friend - likewise, just because a writer has plenty of followers doesn't mean they write good posts. =)

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  18. Glad to read other people don't think it's all about numbers from the get-go. If you keep producing quality writing, you'll eventually (with luck) earn followers. :)

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  19. Great post.

    I think at some point we all can't help but notice the numbers. It is what it is...as long a we don't let it rule us.

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  20. Yes, I would agree that numbers mean something, for whatever reason, and up to a point. I watched an intriguing experiment unfold not too long ago. I saw a very young female blogger boost her blog and twitter followers by hitting on and following every blog she found. After she worked at this for months, had a few thousand followers, she self-published her novel, and many of her blog followers helped her market the book by reviewing it, etc. etc. But her book was amateurish, and so the hype soon died down. The numbers said she was successful, until the truth bore itself out. She was not offering a quality product. Those numbers can also be qualified, however, because her number of Amazon reviews was much lower than her previous ones.

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  21. Some numbers are important - f'rinstance, I bugged a few peops who are not writers, just personal friends, to "follow" me through Networked Blogs, because I wanted to get above the magic number of 20in order to appear on FaceBook's NB radar screen.

    Likewise, now that I have an author page on FaceBook, I'm gently encouraging personal friends people to "like" it, because it would be cool to get over 50 Like so I can have it as a name URL instead of just a number. (And if any of you would like to help, I would be happy to return the favor. Beverly Diehl, Writer)

    But besides that, I would rather have 10 readers who love my work, that 100 followers who never visit my blog. Writing in Flow

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  22. I'm new to blogging, so I pay attention to the number of page views and followers. It lets me know what's working and what needs to be tweaked. As I commented in another post, this is something I pray about, because it's very easy to get carried away with the numbers game. Success isn't solely defined by one measurement. Great post, Jody!

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  23. I especially appreciated your thought about making it about the people instead of the numbers. There are blogs that I read that I feel like I am part of a community, and others where I do feel like if I stopped reading it would only matter on a spreadsheet somewhere.

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  24. You're absolutely right - there's no way to ignore the numbers because everyone else is looking at them as their definition of success. But I look at these numbers kind of like I watch my RRSPs - as a general trend. You can't watch every jump and dip or you'll drive yourself mad; it's the overall curve that really matters. I look at my blog numbers once a week to see how a particular post did or (as a beginner blogger) if anyone is reading. Numbers are going to be low now and that's realistic. But hopefully I'll see a building trend over time. And I very much like your attitude of 'quiet dignity'; it's definitely something to emulate.

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  25. Hi Everyone!! Thanks to each one of you for chiming in the discussion today! It amazes me to think how much pressure we're all putting on ourselves with our numbers.

    I really like what a couple of people said, that if we're producing good content (both in our books and blogs), the numbers will often slowly but surely keep rising. That's not to say we can't do more to help them along, but if we're stagnant, one of the first things we can evaluate is our CONTENT. Are we writing something that's appealing to our readers, something they can get excited to share and talk about?

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  26. Great perspective, Jody! Thanks for presenting this.

    I used to worry about how many followers I had on my blog. When I moved to Wordpress, I decided to not put a followers widget on it, strictly for the purpose of avoiding the paranoia. I do keep an eye on my stats once in a while, but I look at it more from a standpoint of where my traffic is coming from, search terms, etc., to help me maximize my social media presence.

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  27. I do pay attention to numbers, but I get far more excited when someone comments or responds to me. I feel like that helps me get to know them better and that I'm actually making real connections in the cyber world.

    Carla

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  28. Interesting question,

    Perhaps we are obsessed because without numbers it is harder to count success.

    We all like to know that we are moving somewhere. we are better off today than yesterday.

    numbers including blog following, Twitter followers, book sales and even comments on your post all tell us that we are getting listened to.

    I have always been obsessed with numbers. I can no longer write down my times at the gym because i got too obsessed with beating yesterdays that i spend more time writing down numbers than doing the exercise.

    So on that note. Numbers are great, but focus more on the actual writing.

    If you have GREAT writing, the numbers will follow.

    And i must admit that i have asked people to RT when i was near the 1000 follower mark because i was just so darn excited!

    Many thanks for the great post Jody.

    Sarah ketley

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  29. http://popularposting.com/how-to-get-more-twitter-followers/#comment-1318

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  30. http://www.increasr.com is a great way to get more twitter followers, facebook fans, youtube subscribers and viewers for free.

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  31. I think the trick is to do a blog or facebook because you want to first and foremost, not because of "what you'll get out of it."

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  32. I'm interested in the numbers and it's nice to see them steadily increasing but I don't angst over it. Learning how to 'do' the social media networking thing is more important for me right now. Followers are a real bonus.

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  33. This was actually quite timing because over the course of the three weeks my blog hits have been going down, but comments are staying pretty consistent. Who knows? I've determined to be myself. I can't be anyone else and in being myself I pray that God can use my posts wherever they are to reach others. Thanks for the great post Jody!

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  34. This was great timing for me too. I am just now revisiting my Twitter and starting to really enjoy the site - I found this post from there, for instance.

    I am always thrilled when someone follows me but as with others I'm not so much concerned with the how many but the who. Though I am human and I do look and I do get excited when the numbers go up.

    Thanks for a great post!

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  35. Do I care? Yes.
    Do I try to stay balanced about it?
    Yes.
    As I writer, I know I have to do this thing called Social Media. It's all about numbers. Tweets & followers. Blog posts & comments--& oh, yeah--followers.
    And then I read articles about how to do all this & the word I keep bumping into is "relationship."
    Behind all those numbers are people.
    And they're going to get me--or not.
    They're going to follow me or re-tweet me or comment--or not.
    And that's the thing about relationships--it's a choice.
    I can't demand someone follow me. Or RT me. Or comment.
    And I can't demand someone "get" me.
    It's not a numbers game.
    It's a relationship--and, yes, numbers are involved.
    But I keep trying to remind myself that it's really about people--and I haven't met some of them face-to-face yet.

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  36. I look at metrics every day for clients, whether that's conversions(sales) or visits, follows or what-have-you. Far too often people get bogged down in the numbers and fail to see the larger picture.
    I think the numbers, regardless of medium, are a form of validation for most. A sense that yes you did something good, you're on the right track. When that something is a piece of content you produced you want to know that you were successful. Metrics are the only way but only you can determine what the metric represents.

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