Replicate This 300-Million-Sales-Worth Trick to Embellish Your Use of Numbers in Marketing

Numerosity — a set of psychological biases that bend perception

Nabil Alouani
Oct 2 · 9 min read
photo of Steve Jobs superimposed on a background of numbers and equations
photo of Steve Jobs superimposed on a background of numbers and equations
Created by the author from Pixabay and Pngimg.com

It took Steve Jobs less than 49 minutes to shock the whole music industry with the iPod release in 2001.

The ensuing marketing shockwave spread over the following decade and brought Apple over 300 million sales. In theory, Steve Jobs managed to put an iPod in every American's pocket by the year 2011.

During his presentation, Jobs swung several outstanding numbers in front of the press:

  • 10 hours of autonomy
  • ultra-compact size of 2.4 x 4.0 inches
  • uploading time 30 times faster than with CDs
  • 20 minutes of song skip protection

As outstanding as they were, the previous numbers were merely fireworks following up on a marketing explosion Jobs triggered as soon as he started to describe the iPod.

First, Jobs said: “The biggest thing about iPod is that it holds 1,000 songs.” Then, Apple’s former face went on to explain that, for most people, a thousand songs represent their entire music collection, and “to have your whole music library with you at all times is a quantum leap.”

From there, all Jobs had to do was wait for the shockwave to spread, and spread it did. Journalists acted like sounding boards for Apple’s breakthrough — even when it wasn’t their intention.

For instance, The New York Times criticized the iPod for its supposedly limited market and easy-to-hack music transfer features. Despite the negative tone, The New York Times also wrote, “ it is as small as flash players, but it has a 5-gigabyte hard drive, large enough to store 1,000 songs.”

People didn’t remember the critics, nor the risky functions. People didn’t remember the exact size of the device neither. People remembered only one thing: “1,000 songs.”

Jobs marked the memory of his target audience because he used numbers to tap into their psyche. When I was doing my homework to decrypt Jobs’ number-based marketing spells, a fun fact stroke me. The sharpest consumer-behavior study I’ve found came out nearly a decade after the iPod release — the guy was ahead of his time.

Twenty years later, Jobs’ number-based tricks are still as powerful as ever. So, without further ado, let’s decipher this magic and take a look at how to emulate it.

How to Replicate the Four Components of Numerosity

We humans love figures. When we place a numerical value on something, we understand it better. That’s why we intuitively use numbers for communication, accountability, and, of course, marketing. That being said, not all of us are aware of the perception-bending power of numbers — especially when sales are involved.

Professors Rajesh Bagchi and Derick F. Davis highlighted in a paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research that numbers influence our consumer behaviors. Whenever we’re faced with a purchase-related decision, four main elements come into play: size, units, order, and calculation difficulty.

For his iPod unveiling, Jobs used a smooth combination of three of the previous four elements to skyrocket the iPod’s popularity — yes, Jobs omitted one particular component. Who knows what would’ve happened if he had scored a perfect 4/4?

1. Size Matters

One of the numerosity biases affecting consumer behaviors is tied to our use of mathematical heuristics. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that allow us to accelerate situation assessment and decision-making.

The catch is, human judgment is subject to cognitive limitations — this also applies to statistics. Just like when you make typos in your instant text replies, your mind makes mistakes when making fast calculations. One of these mental errors is our brains’ tendency to assume larger sizes and quantities from big numbers and vice versa.

For example, if I tell you that I ate 160g of protein this morning, you won’t be surprised. On the other hand, if I tell you that I devoured 800g of fish for breakfast, you might start wondering what kind of monster I am. For the very same amount of food, you imagine me differently — that’s your unconscious use of heuristics in action right there.

In short, the bigger the number gets, the bigger the emotional impact you feel. That’s why Jobs chose to mention a giant collection of 1,000 over merely 5 gigabytes of storage capacity.

► How to leverage the size bias

There are two ways to leverage the size bias: Boost positive effects, and alleviate negative ones. The two effects can be used separately or combined. But first, you’ll have to find a way to quantify your products.

For the sake of example, let’s say that you’re selling a fitness program. We’ll use both effects for advertising this very same program.

A. Big size to boost positive effects: Instead of saying “Weekly workout program” in your product description, aim for “21 exercises you can do at home.” This will add a “WOW that’s a lot of exercises” effect.

Bam — big size effect triggered.

B. Small size to alleviate negative effects: When describing your workouts, instead of saying “50-minute workout sessions,” which can be overwhelming for beginners, you can aim for “½ hour of exercise and 20 minutes of deep breathing each day.”

We tend to omit that, during exercise, we rest for almost half of the time. By highlighting this detail through simple statistics, you’ll make your client realize that your workout program is less demanding than it seems.

Bam — small size effect triggered.

2. Units: The Language You Use to Communicate

In their research, Bagchi and Davis found that we tend to pay more attention to units when dealing with abstractions and future-oriented matters — say, for instance, when we measure a travel distance or decide whether or not we should add a product to our shopping cart.

The catch is, we’re not that good with units that we’re not familiar with — and thus, our conversions from one unit to a less familiar one are almost always biased.

This is why, for international flights, we don’t talk much about traveling 1,000 miles or 3,000 km. We say a “two-hour flight” because, unlike distance, the measurement of time is universal. We all understand what one hour is, much like we understand what one song represents.

Steve Jobs avoided the blurry unit of gigabytes and aimed for a unit you and I can easily comprehend to make sure his breakthrough resonated with us.

► How to leverage the unit bias

One way to picture units is as a vocabulary. If you speak a language hard to understand by your clientele, you’ll lose their attention. This applies both to product description and pricing.

A. Product description: The idea is to find a unit that’s easy to understand. If that’s not possible, you can aim for an equivalent.

Example: let’s say that you’re selling technical products like vacuum cleaners. If your vacuum cleaner is 40dB loud, explain that it sounds like a quiet library.

Most people will react to 40dB with “Cool story, brother or sister, what do I do with this information?” On the other hand, a mental image like a quiet library gives a relatable comparison “Wow, that’s really quiet, isn’t it?”

B. Product pricing: The same pattern from the library example can be applied here.

Example: Let’s say that you’re working with the marketing team of Medium. Using units allows you to add a psychological effect to the “$5 monthly subscription for unlimited articles” offer.

For instance, you can add “$5 is what you pay for two coffees every day.” Mentioning a day-to-day equivalent will emphasize the accessibility of the subscription fee.

3. Figures Are Best Served as a Menu — The Main Dish Comes Before Dessert

The order in which you display numbers in a sale offer can influence its appeal. Bagchi and Davis found that displaying “$2 for 12 cookies” is less attractive than “12 cookies for $2.”

“Why?” you say.

In short, the first formulation makes our minds think, “I gotta spend two dollars for twelve cookies,” which insinuates a negative action before a positive outcome. However, the second formulation gives a more positive perspective as it prioritizes the gains, “Oh, that’s a lot of cookies for only two dollars.”

When he spoke about storage capacity, Jobs didn’t use the cookie-offer formula.

screenshot of price grid showing prices, number of songs, and cost per song highlighting hard drive player
screenshot of price grid showing prices, number of songs, and cost per song highlighting hard drive player
Screenshot from Youtube video modified by author

Jobs’ mistake was to display price before capacity while presenting the technology Apple used on iPods. But we can forgive him since his presentation took place a decade before Bagchi and Davis's research.

Besides, the pioneer used another technique in the very same slide to make up for his price-display “mistake.”

► How to leverage the order bias

Put the number of items before the price.

If it’s not possible to quantify your offer, put your added value first. For instance, “All of your passwords secured in one place for $2 per month.”

Yes, that’s it.

4. Simple Calculations Make Rationality Your Marketing Ally

When our minds find it hard to do the math, they rely on mental shortcuts. As we saw before, inaccurate calculations can enhance the psychological biases listed above, but they can also backfire.

For instance, a too-good-to-be-true impression can push customers away. Another example is making a promotion hard to compute. The longer the operation lasts, the more hesitant and annoyed the customer becomes. We all know too well that a hesitant, annoyed customer is less likely to purchase. Keeping the example of the cookie offer we’ve used before, the clients could start to wonder: “Wait, how much does it cost per cookie? How can they afford to sell a cookie for 16 cents? They must be full of chemicals or something.”

Bagchi and Davis showed in their study that the antidote to such negative backlashes is honesty and easy computation. When we can easily assess promotions, we instantly eliminate our doubts; thus, our rational minds become satisfied. As a result, our decision-making accelerates.

That’s what Steve Jobs did to stress the cost-effectiveness of the hard drive technology used in iPods.

screenshot of price grid showing prices, number of songs, and cost per song highlighting cost per song for different media
screenshot of price grid showing prices, number of songs, and cost per song highlighting cost per song for different media
Screenshot from Youtube video modified by author

After dropping the “1,000 songs in your pocket” emotional bomb, Jobs displayed a dedicated column with the price-per-song to seduce the rational minds — here’s how to do the same.

► How to leverage the calculation-difficulty bias

Even if you’re relying on mental biases and heuristics to embellish your numbers, many rational customers will try to assess your offer — and thus, compute it. The idea is to take into account these nerdy customers and reassure them in their decision-making process.

You ought to keep in mind that this strategy is most effective when your promotions provide lower-than-average prices. It also doesn’t apply for every promotion. When selling workout programs, I personally don’t think that learning a new exercise for $2 can make any sense.

So, when it’s relevant, add the price per unit below your sexy offer numbers.

Example: “14 before-bed stories for your child for $9.99 — that’s 71 cents per story.” On one level, “emotional” prospects will go, “Oh, that’s lots of stories costing less than $1 per story — definitely worth it.”

On another level, “rational” prospects will have a satisfied half-smile when they realize you did the price assessment computation for them.

Final Words

Whether we like it or not, notice it or not, many marketing techniques play with our psyche to trick us into buying. Numerosity biases are no exception.

Just like these manipulative number-based mental games, Steve Jobs was controversial. Not everything he did was right. Not every marketing technique he used was innocent. Did he revolutionize the world of portable music? I think yes — absolutely. Did the iPod breakthrough justify the use of marketing techniques based on mental manipulations? I don’t know.

What I do know, though, is this: Reality is never black or white. It’s always gray, and so is marketing. So the best (and probably only) thing we can do is keep our marketing’s shades from getting gloomy — which we can only do by responsibly using our techniques.

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Thanks to Brittany Jezouit

Nabil Alouani

Written by

Psychology | Business | Marketing — When I’m not reading, I’m writing 📬 Subscribe to receive 2 hand-picked articles each month ➡ https://bit.ly/3kCt4L

Better Marketing

Marketing advice and case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and effectively.

Nabil Alouani

Written by

Psychology | Business | Marketing — When I’m not reading, I’m writing 📬 Subscribe to receive 2 hand-picked articles each month ➡ https://bit.ly/3kCt4L

Better Marketing

Marketing advice and case studies to help you market ethically, authentically, and effectively.

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