Yes, you can do the math.

Posted: December 18, 2020

Dana Cruikshank

Numeracy and the (misunderstood) relationship between math, marketing, and modern culture

3 min. read

Can we get real for a second? 

Growing up, I was never a “math person.” And if you got into marketing, that might be your deal as well. Yet maybe you’ve also discovered that our craft is increasingly driven by numbers. Data. And that scares people. It used to scare me, too. 

A Misunderstood Discipline 

I have since learned that fear of math is a perceived barrier to growth for many people. Some folks try to compensate for this fear by claiming being “bad at math” as an identity and point of pride, like it somehow proves they’re more artistic or creative. And our culture worships creativity, but reserves the art of crunching numbers for the geeks – or at least it did during my formative years. 

The Intern Mentality

This fear of math didn’t seem to hold me back much until my late thirties, when my fascination about health and human behavior led me to pursue a masters in public health. There was just one problem – the field is grounded in math, especially advanced statistics. From day one, I was lost. 

My peers at the time were bright, data-savvy 20-somethings with math skills as polished as river stones, including a number of medical students who apparently decided that becoming a doctor wasn’t ambitious enough (so they were pursuing a few extra initials to go with ‘MD’). I felt like Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson from the film, The Intern. Everyone was seemingly a math genius and I had nothing. But that’s the thing about being an intern: you’re in it to learn. 

That’s when I had an epiphany. 

Think Numeracy

What I needed to pass my classes wasn’t innate wizardry with numbers. I just needed a sufficient level of numeracy, which is like literacy, but with math and numbers instead of words. 

In this case, I didn’t have to become a “math person” to be successful, the same way that we don’t all have to be linguistic scholars to read a book and write a letter. In this case, I simply needed the baseline level of math skills required to handle advanced statistics. That realization made it all much more doable. 

Through that experience, I elevated my craft by adding a greater proficiency in statistics to my arsenal. And that gave me the analytics and data science chops the modern marketer needs. It’s basically all statistics – averages, probabilities, and benchmarks – not rocket science. 

I no longer hate math, and you don’t have to, either. We should hate the paradigm that being able to do it is something you’re either born being good at or can’t learn. This is the exact opposite of a growth mindset. 

Blame the 60s

It turns out part of the “math person” myth dates back to the Cold War. During the space race, the U.S. shifted its entire educational system to breed engineers. Our default high school curriculum (still) includes a crash course that sends students from zero to sixty, from algebra to trigonometry to calculus. Other math-related disciplines – like statistics and accounting – are treated as distractive “specialties” that diverge from this rocket-scientist-or-bust paradigm. 

It’s no wonder we have a long-standing beef with math. Save for the engineers among us, we were forced to learn abstract concepts we would never use in the real world. 

It’s All Statistics 

Meanwhile, most of us don’t understand things like statistics, which is the foundation of data science. And because of that, we over rely on the few “experts” that do to throw stats in our face and sound smarter about sports, finance, health/nutrition, politics, and other fields, leading to all sorts of problems, like media-induced anxiety related to COVID-19.

It’s time for “non-math people” to take the wheel.  If I can pass advanced biostatistics in middle age, then you can attain the better grasp of numbers needed to perform the fancy stuff with ease: predictive data analyses, data modeling and forecasting, a/b testing, media budget calculations, and more. 

Numeracy is Essential 

I would argue that numeracy is not just part of the modern marketer’s skillset. It’s essential to survive. At VisionPoint, we often say, “data beats intuition,” and you’re probably finding that to be true in your own practice. 

While what we do is still “creative,” marketing, like public health, has become a science rooted in data to understand and influence audience behavior. We need to know how to track, measure, and improve on (the right) results at each stage of the customer journey to achieve our goals – especially in higher education, where marketing dollars must be invested wisely. 

Rekindle Your Relationship with Numbers

And you don’t have to pursue a masters degree to gain these skills. There are many free resources that you can turn to, from free online courses at Khan Academy to Youtube tutorials. Your local community college can take you even further. 

The bottom line is: you don’t have to be a math genius to understand the story your data is telling you. All you need is the right amount of numeracy. Trust me. It adds up and pays off. 

Dana Cruikshank is the Director of Strategic Partnerships at VisionPoint Marketing. As a senior-level consultant for new and existing projects, Dana helps colleges and universities use data to drive better marketing decisions. Dana brings more than a decade of higher ed wisdom from having worked on both sides of the institution-agency relationship, which includes first-hand experience at Virginia Tech, where he served in various marketing leadership roles prior to VisionPoint. If you would like to start a conversation with Dana or any of our experts, please visit our website or reach out to our team. We’re on a mission to help higher ed institutions succeed.