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Vanity Metrics and Counting Crows

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

Most Indian kids of my time grew up listening to fascinating stories about Akbar and Birbal. Here's one of my favourites:

Akbar was a great King and Birbal was a minister in his court, famous for his wit. One day, while strolling in the garden, Akbar spotted a crow and decided to trick his friend Birbal. He said, "Birbal, tell me how many crows are there in Agra?"

Without wasting a second, pat came Birbal's reply, "Five thousand three hundred and ninety four, Huzoor"

A surprised Akbar asked, "How do you know that?"

"You can get them counted, Huzoor.", Birbal replied.

"If there are less?", inquired the King.

Birbal smiled and said, "Some of them may have gone to the neighbouring kingdoms on a holiday."

"And if there are more?", asked the King.

"Ah well. Their relatives from other cities might have come visiting", replied Birbal.

Akbar was pleased with Birbal's wit and gave him a handsome reward.

What a fun story!

When I was younger, I laughed at it. But now, I can't help but think, centuries ago they had discovered a truth which we have now come to grudgingly accept:

"If you torture data long enough, it will confess to anything."

We have all done this at some point. Torture data and create alternate lives for crows to justify an insight. Maybe organisations' excessive focus on metrics is to be blamed. But that's equivalent to blaming Akbar for asking the question. Either way, just like we see humour in this story, a few hundred years later, maybe we will become the butt of jokes for our descendants.

Something like:

Once upon a time, a famous CEO asked his favourite CMO, "How did our digital ad do?"

And the CMO replied, "Exceptionally well! 0.05% of our target audience which was 1% of the total audience clicked on the ad."

CEO asked, "Wow, did that convert to sales?"

Pat came the reply, "No Sir, 60% of ad clicks on the internet are by accident."

"You mean to say we wasted our money?" CEO asked.

CMO replied, "Absolutely not, Sir. We can now hound these people with retargeting campaigns till someone succumbs and buys our product."

CEO smiled, "Good job. You get a raise. Next time, let's measure the lifetime value of customer acquisition cost and present a confusing chart which will blow our investors away."

Someone will laugh at our jargon and our love for metrics. I just know it.

Till we become a joke, remember, you can't count crows. And you can't measure everything.


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