Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO, CommunicationsMatchTM
When it comes to digital data, the Mark Twain popularized quote, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics”, is as relevant today as it was more than a century ago. Change statistics to digital metrics and we’ve got the 21st century version.
There are some who may take issue with this. When measuring digital views, impressions or website visits, surely, the zeros and ones of digital measurement must be right?
But as with statistics, although you cannot quite make digital data say what you want, data inflation is rampant.
Facebook not only inflated video metrics, but also accounts. Twitter, too. Concerns have been raised about the accuracy of YouTube metrics and recently Netflix was in the line of fire for the data around its claim of record viewership for the movie Bird Box.
As companies and users learn to better decode technology through experience and greater familiarity, expect more attention to digital metrics. This will not just be at the level of large tech companies, but at every company. Reputations will be at stake.
In a USA Today article following Twitter’s 2017 admission that it had inflated data for three years, eMarketer analyst, Debra Aho Williams, encapsulated a key point that should give guardians of a company’s reputation pause: “Digital media measurement has never been as exact a science as you would think. People used to call the Internet ‘the most measurable medium’, but there have been many instances over the years where things like user counts have been under- or over-stated.”
It’s important to recognize the challenge of both measurement, and the behavioral drivers of data inflation, when digital metrics are “currency” in terms of direct advertising revenue and digital marketing services, as well as digital counts of users, website traffic or email lists.
These metrics are at the heart of business models not only in technology and media, but increasingly in other sectors. As a result, the incentive to go big is an almost irresistible force because revenues, jobs, valuations, bonuses, and even funding may be on the line.
Data can be cleaned up, made more accurate, stripped of duplication, fake users eliminated and engagement whittled down to what really is meaningful. But this takes effort and integrity. Choices have to be made – and those choices generally make numbers smaller.
From a behavioral perspective, this is hard. The “scarcity” principle – something I wrote about in an article on why we make bad decisions and how we can make better ones – leads to tunnel vision when we chase scarce resources, e.g. money. When in a tunnel, it’s hard to see the bigger picture and when money is involved, we are easily led astray.
With digital data, this may well mean being blind to inconvenient truths or exaggeration. Because this is a systemic issue driven by behavior, companies, digital marketers and individuals need to take a hard look in the mirror and ask how they are using data metrics:
- Companies: Is our traffic, user counts or email marketing data accurate? How would it look if The New York Times, trade media, or our clients asked very detailed questions about what’s included and excluded in the numbers we share?
- PR & Digital Marketing Agencies: Is the data we provide our clients thoroughly vetted? Are views justifiable and engagement meaningful or are we simply relying on other’s metrics?
- Communicators: Am I providing data to business leaders that is a true reflection of engagement with the company?
When it comes to paid traffic, it’s clear that a portion of what is being paid for today is the illusion of audience. In a longer essay on this topic, I note “if the claims of impressions or views were to be stacked up for every digital campaign in the country today, the numbers would far exceed the population and what is remotely possible in terms of what real people could theoretically see on any given day.”
With billions of dollars in digital advertising now at stake, users who are more familiar and better positioned to decode what’s credible and what’s not, along with tools designed to assess data, we are at an inflection point in our digital journey. We’re emerging from the digital Wild West.
I argued at the beginning of 2018 that the most important marketing trend for the year was that audiences were decoding technology. The result is a better, clearer understanding of data, and growing skepticism of, and attention, to data.
Business leaders, regulators, journalists and clients are asking detailed questions of companies and communicators’ digital metrics. The reputations of those who choose the path of exaggeration, willful blindness or spin over substance will be a stake.
This is a good thing. The sharp focus on data and meaningful engagement, will drive greater transparency in reporting and marketing. Those who choose this path will be winners.
CommunicationsMatch offers communications & PR agency search tools and resources that help companies find, shortlist, and engage communications, digital marketing and branding agencies, consultants and freelancers by industry and communications expertise, location and size. The site has 5,000 agency and professional profiles in areas including: crisis communications, public relations, internal communications, government affairs, investor relations, content marketing, social media, SEO, website development, photography and video. Prior to founding CommunicationsMatch, Locke held senior corporate communications roles at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley, and Deutsche Bank and founded communications consultancies.