Lies, damned lies: social media stats lessons from the Woolies whistleblower

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In his autobiography, Mark Twain quotes former British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, saying “Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.’”

What has been happening over the last few months on Twitter has one thinking the same thought. What exactly is true? And how are statistics manipulated to make a company (or person) look good or bad?

The veracity of numbers was again highlighted when US vice-presidential hopeful Paul Ryan, who in his acceptance speech claimed a sub-three hour marathon time, only to be busted later for having a time of 4:01. While seemingly insignificant it speaks volumes about how easily people “fudge” numbers to make themselves look good.

No more has this trend become more apparent countries like South Africa than what happened on Twitter this week when a so-called “Social Media Guru” Justin Harrison decided to take on retail giant Woolworths for what he termed its racist hiring practises. Besides the entire issue being a non-issue, what did stand out for many was how this little-known guru had garnered himself a massive following of 43 000 followers on Twitter and 34 000 plus likes on Facebook.

An in-depth research article published by popular media blog 2oceansvibe has shown that much of these numbers have been bought. 2oceansvibe itself felt the heat recently when it was discovered that its internet streaming service had duplicated listeners.

Just how important are numbers in the digital world?

When it comes to online advertising, the numbers mean everything. How legitimate are your opt-in subscribers? What’s the open-rate? The click-through rate? How many unique visitors do you have to your website? Twitter followers? Facebook fans? These numbers become incredibly important to advertising agencies and brands who rely on these numbers when deciding when, where and how to spend their marketing budget.

So while it may seem rather innocuous for someone like Justin Harrison to buy himself Twitter followers, it does become a problem when he uses those bought numbers to promote his “social media skills”. According to the article by 2oceansvibe it was uncovered that he had used his follower count to get brands like VW and Mercedes-Benz to send him some gifts.

But with whom does the responsibility lie?

While some people may consider that what Harrison has done is fraud, it ultimately begs the question: should brands and advertising agencies do more homework before committing marketing spend? Print media in South Africa is regulated by the Audit Bureau of Circulation. An advertiser can ask any newspaper to provide a certificate from the ABC proving its readership. Even the audience of terrestrial radio and television audiences are audited.

Perhaps it is because these certificates are so freely available that it has made brands and agencies lazy. They simply trust what has been put in front of them. So if someone claims that they have 34 000 followers on Twitter, and a cursory glance on their profile confirms the number, then it would probably not cross anyone’s mind that those followers are fake or bought. In the stated case, about 15 000 followers had not tweeted once — hardly an engaged following!

Brands, advertising agencies and even direct business need to become more aware that fudging numbers online is far easier than “in the real world”, which means that you cannot take the readership of an online publication, blog or “guru” at face value.

So what can you do to protect yourself and your brand? Fill a room with digital advertisers and they’ll quickly put together a check list of things to look for when decided how to spend your marketing budget, and with whom. Here’s a quick short-list:

1. Request direct stats
Many online blogs and publications will have a fancy rate sheet which not only outlines their pricing but also their demographics and readership. If you’re going to invest large ad spend with them it’s perfectly reasonable to request statistics directly from a third-party (like Google Analytics). If they refuse to give you the stats, walk away.

2. Use online tools to verify numbers
There are many independent online tools that can give you some variable stats on the engagement of listeners, readers and followers. These independent tools may not be 100% accurate but they’ll be good enough to give you a rough idea of how true the stats are.

3. Do they belong to any business associations?
Well established online publishing companies generally would be members of reputable online associations. The main one in South Africa is the Digital Media and Marketing Association (DMMA) and to a lesser extent the Direct Marketing Association. It’s also telling if it’s a member of a local chamber of commerce.

4. Are its users engaged?
A glance at its Twitter timeline, Facebook fan page or the comment section on their blog will quickly show you how engaged their followers really are. It’s easy enough to post things on a blog but it’s another thing to demonstrate engagement.

5. What are you being charged?
How reasonable do the rates seem to you? “Too cheap” should be as much of a red flag as “very expensive”. Some publishers will try to give you the run-around on why you should feel honoured that they’re prepared to “represent your brand” and then at the same time rip you off, while the “too cheap” brigade may just take your money and run.

6. Big promises
What are they promising you to get the deal? A little bit of research will show you the typical return on investment for online campaigns are. If their promises are way above the norm, then be careful.

7. What does your gut tell you?
If everything seems legitimate but your gut is telling you that something is off, it may well be. Can you somehow mitigate the risk? Are you prepared to handle the fallout if things really do go wrong? If your gut is telling you this is a bad idea, then it’s probably a good idea to back off and look elsewhere. It’s your money and you have the right to be comfortable with where you spend it.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch.

No matter how you choose to spend your advertising budget online, the responsibility ultimately lies with you to ensure that the publisher is speaking the truth. As much as we’d like to believe everything we’re told, when it comes to numbers it’s wise to remember “lies, damned lies and statistics”.

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  • http://twitter.com/scrookson Sean Crookson

    “Besides the entire issue being a non-issue”… Umh, I think you were so quick to shoot the messenger, you didn’t even read the points he made. Woolworths is, by law, not allowed to post ads that bar people by race. Go read the Employment Equity laws and then come back and say it’s a ‘non issue’. Whatever stats his account is showing has zero to do with the issue at hand and smacks of a hatchet-job.

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