Monday, January 9, 2012

98 Percent of Statistics Are Made Up – And Then Some

“A [person] may have six meals one day and none the next, making an average of three meals a day, but that is not a good way to live.”

Nor is it a good way to use statistics.

The above words, attributed to US Supreme Court Associate Justice, Louis Brandeis, underscore the age-old trouble with this black sheep cousin of fully respected mathematics; a discipline we call statistics. For as much as statistics attempt to illuminate an issue, address a concern, highlight a trend, or flesh out a public opinion, statistics are as ambiguous as they are helpful. As a public relations professional, I estimate that 40% of my workweek (sorry, I couldn’t resist) is spent awash in statistics, some good, some bad, and many that leave me wondering “huh?!”

A new study by marketing company, Ifbyphone, has me doing just that. In its 2011 State of Marketing Measuring Report, the company found that while 82% of marketing executive managers expect all marketing channels, (print, TV, radio, mobile, online, email) to have a measurable return on investment, (ROI) only a paltry 29% of respondents said they understood how to measure and achieve that aim across all channels, with offline platforms being the most difficult to measure.

So does that mean the other 71% who admit to not having a clue deserves to go back to statistics 101?

Not necessarily.

For as earthshaking as pronouncements such as these sound, when you dig a little deeper, the gap really isn’t that surprising after all. Besides, don’t most effective bosses set the bar high and on occasion, leave their staffers scrambling to rise to the challenge at hand? It’s also not surprising since measuring ROI has long been marketers Holy Grail. How exactly does one measure word-of-mouth? Where is the hard money guarantee that a multichannel public relations campaign was any more successful than performing a mass emailing or any other type of initiative for that matter? In economics that’s called opportunity cost.

But in marketing, opportunity cost is a lot harder to measure.

The good news is that with the exception of social media – the online world’s digital word-of-mouth – 59% of respondent said offline media was the hardest metric to track. Why is that the good news you ask? Because as we begin 2012, Internet and mobile web marketing continues to gobble up a greater percentage of the marketing mix. Not in a cannibalistic manner, but in a complimentary one to traditional channels. Feature and mobile smartphones, with a combined penetration rate of 95%, (if you believe that statistic) offer some of the best marketing metric tracking ability including click and redemption rates, surveys, opt-in, and others. Already, it is estimated that US companies spend 30% of their marketing budgets online.

So while I wouldn’t dismiss a report like this and cry statistical BS, I’d be sure to keep an open mind whenever the topic of statistics comes up.

Or, to personalize it some more think about it like this:

I could tell you that statistically speaking; I recently placed my 2.59 children on board a plane back to England following the holiday break. I could tell you that because that’s the average size of an American family.

I could tell you that. But when it comes to my family I’d be telling a nearly six-tenths lie.

Go figure. (Pun intended)

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