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Don’t let statistics stifle your creativity

Statistics seem to be everywhere in the 21st century and businesses are being encouraged not just to take heed of them but also to act on them or face the dire consequences that will eventually come.

Everywhere, there is advice on what you should do to “engage” your customers – indeed, “engagement” is this week’s buzz word – but should you really pick up on everything that so-called experts throw your way?

For example, x% of people will open a LinkedIn or Twitter posting that uses a listing format, such as “12 e-mails that will guarantee you new business” or “Eight things you must not tell a client”. Statistics might show that x% more people are likely to visit your website if it offers them a free gift. Or if it features video – but not too much and not too little, in fact use the percentage of video that the biggest percentage of website viewers prefer. There’s bound to be a stat for that somewhere.

You increase your chances of someone reading your stuff if you keep it within a certain length – again, not too short, not too long; not too pithy and not too heavy. Most surfers – are people who use search engines still called surfers? – want to read text in Arial, x% of people have said that Calibri discourages them so you should avoid it too and go with the majority.

Heck, there must even be some statistics that show that most people prefer a blue background on websites and images of three people (two women, one man – or vice versa, or [bad joke alert] one of each?). People prefer “Why not get in touch?” to “Contact us”, “About us” to “Who we are”… and so on and so on.

I think I’ve made my point – if you follow all the advice and all the statistics that experts have very dutifully provided, you run the very real risk of producing something that is so ordinary, so much the norm, that it is boring. Imagine if statistics showed that most people prefer silver cars, would every car manufacturer ditch the other colours in their range? If it was proven that people who visit the cinema prefer their action films to have a car chase that is no shorter than three minutes but no longer than seven, would you expect film makers to edit their chases between these timings? (Actually, film makers are extremely guilty of regurgitating the same old garbage because that’s what gets people through the doors in their millions, but we all know that the really good movies are the ones that stand out for being different).

I’m sure it can be shown that more people eat at fast food restaurants than eat at village cafés, but should the cafés shut down and burger joints be installed in every village? No, obviously not.

Like the film industry, the music industry has often fallen foul of the idea of giving people what they think they want. If a heavy rock song or a boy band ballad has taken the chart by storm or generated a record number of downloads, what happens? Suddenly, heavy rock bands or boy bands a-plenty are created and foisted on the public and bands who previously did not fit into these categories are ‘redesigned’ to fit the new mould. This works for a period but then people soon become fed up with the formulae and eventually the same kind of bands can’t even buy themselves a contract. When I write and produce my own music, I don’t think I’ll do something that sounds like music acts A, B or C. I produce something that I like, that I believe can only come from me, and do I worry about how many people are going to like it and how many might loathe it? Again, no.

The Independent newspaper is going to close down because not enough people are reading it and keeping it going makes no economic sense. Just why that has happened is for another blog but when the original creators of the paper set it up they didn’t think “Let’s produce something that most people want.” If they had, they would have copied the formula of the biggest selling newspaper in the UK, ie they would have produced a rival to The Sun and maybe even called it The Moon. But they didn’t do that. They decided instead to produce something that didn’t already exist, a little like the ground-breaking Today newspaper that went before it but much better and with stronger principles. The Independent never really threatened the established newspapers – although its circulation did get slightly close to that of The Guardian’s before it tailed off – but it was an excellent addition to the range of papers on offer and all of the others upped their game and became better because of the new kid of the block.

Creativity is the lifeblood of marketing, public relations, design, photography, journalism and so many other disciplines. It doesn’t make sense to sacrifice this, to avoid originality, because statistics have proven that most people prefer the safe option that doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable.

Sure, you might want to keep an eye on the stats and you might not want to commit commercial suicide by going for something so outlandish that only you like. But your main driving force should always be creativity, being different, doing something that others haven’t done or, at the very least, giving an existing approach a clever twist.

You may not get rich by not joining the masses and not becoming an automaton – but you just might get a heck of a lot of respect and kudos and, who knows, maybe enough interest that translates into enough business to keep your head above the water. A head that you can hold high and not hang in shame.

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Rory Baxter, owner of The Word Factory, has decades of experience as a writer, editor, and public relations practitioner.

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