How Data Hype is Destroying Your Social Media ROI

by · September 17, 201236 comments

We are all looking for the latest nugget of data that will help us optimize our social media strategies for success. Every time we see a post with an infographic about the best time to tweet or what social networks our audience is using we get excited thinking it’s just the right information to help us take our social media strategy to the next level. That’s why you see so many status updates hyping the data because it’s finally the answer we’ve been looking for … or is it?

In the early years of social media marketing (just 6-8 years ago, really) several major media outlets chastised bloggers claiming they didn’t cite sources and do enough research to make sure the information was accurate. The social media crowd stood up and said that our audiences would control bad information by calling it out, complaining in comments, or simply not sharing the information with others. In essence, our audience would be the filter for bad information.

That Data is Bunk

Well somewhere along the way we have fallen down on the job. We aren’t being critical enough about all this data that is getting thrown at us. I see too many just believing the data because it came from a “reputable source,” — a company or an individual we have come to trust. We need to use a more critical eye before we jump on the band wagon of support. More importantly, we must be more curious when using this information to justify adjusting our marketing tactics.

And it’s not just software companies and bloggers with their attempts at research. Even traditional and mass media outlets have started sharing infographics and stats disguised as research. We’re all falling down on the job of policing bad information. If you plan on actually using the data you’ve seen, it is critical to step up your skepticism. If you don’t, you could destroy your social media ROI by making changes that have absolutely no relevance to your audience.

Tom Webster gave an excellent presentation at Explore that changed my perspective on all this data. Here are some of his tips and a few of my own that you can look for before you get fooled by data hype.

Critique Sources

First and foremost, how many infographics have you seen that don’t specify which data point came from which source? Many either don’t cite sources at all or have a list at the bottom that doesn’t show which data points actually came from them. This is high school term paper 101. Make sure the data is properly cited with the link of the full report because you need to know more than who provided the data. You need to understand the context of how the data was originally presented.

I’ve heard the debate that there is such a limited space on an infographic that this is difficult to accomplish. Seriously? This isn’t hard. We’ve been using end notes with those little 1’s and 2’s for years in white papers and the like. Frankly, if the sources aren’t properly cited I immediately disregard the piece.

Here is an example of a horribly cited infographic. We have no idea where the data came from and while the information is time-based, there is no information on when the data was pulled. The number of Facebook users changes every day so the date is highly relevant yet it isn’t provided. More commonly we see examples like this on the Growth of Social Media where sources are at the end of the infographic. Yet we don’t know which stats came from which source.  And in this example on Social Media and Healthcare, we see a great example of citing each statistic so we can dive into the data deeper and determine whether or not it is relevant.

Critique Methodology

This was a great tip from Tom at Explore. In order to truly understand whether or not the data is statistically valid we need to take a deeper look at how the data was collected. When you go to see the original data report it should clearly state the methodology that was used to collect the information, who it was collected from, how it was collected and how it was analyzed to present the final report. I’m sure Tom would argue that there is still a lot of critiquing that can be done on whether the methodologies presented are best practices, but for us data laymen knowing that the methodology is provided is the first step. We can defer to experts like Tom to call out poor methodology. Tasty Placement did an infographic on testing social signals and their relevance to SEO. I appreciate that they clearly state their methodology and that the data isn’t statistically relevant, but they found the information interesting. It makes it much easier for me to put the data into context if I were to ever use or refer to it.

Critique Audience Fit

Who is your target audience? Do these stats relate to your audience? A lot of data hype is based on results that came from an audience that is completely unknown to the reader. In this example, How to Get More Pins and Repins on Pinterest I have a lot of questions. Dan Zarrella, the author of the piece, states the data came from 11,000 pinned images and that’s all we know. Were the images consumer focused or business related? What is the demographic breakdown of the people in the study? Are they primarily females or males? How old are they? Are they consumers or business users?

And what about analyzing the content itself? The words used is a start, but only that. A qualitative look at what types of images would help further inform us on whether or not these statistics mean anything to our audience.

In order to determine whether or not this data is relevant to my Pinterest strategy, it is important to understand the audience analyzed to know whether it is YOUR audience. Too many of these infographics have undisclosed audience demographics that make it 100% irrelevant to you and your strategy.  The kind of data we need to make better decisions is industry-based data on a specific target audience, not data that is so generalized we can’t determine its relevance.

To be clear, I’m not saying infographics or data shared online is always bad or useless. Infographics in particular are a fantastic way to quickly communicate information. But we need to be more critical about how the data is communicated, whether or not it is truly worthy of sharing and if it holds any relevance to the strategies and tactics we are using for our companies and clients.

What are your thoughts? Are you skeptical of all this data rolling by? Have you ever adjusted your approach based on data presented in an infographic? Are you taking a second look now? Leave a comment and let’s start a healthy debate on whether or not data hype is destroying our social media ROI.

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About Nichole Kelly

Nichole Kelly

Nichole Kelly is the CEO of Social Media Explorer|SME Digital. She is also the author of How to Measure Social Media. Her team helps companies figure out where social media fits and then helps execute the recommended strategy across the “right” mix of social media channels. Do you want to rock the awesome with your digital marketing strategy? Contact Nichole

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Comments & Reactions

Comments Policy

Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • George Papadongonas

    People are always looking for shortcuts, aren’t they? It doesn’t matter what you write, but if you post it exactly at 15:53:34” on Saturday, it will be a huge success! 

    Even if infographics were right, if you use data about averages, you won’t have anything more than average performance. The data hype is great, as long as you’re using your data and your target audience’s data, to achieve excellence.

    • http://about.me/bradleyjoyce bradleyjoyce

       Scheduling intelligently isn’t a short cut… it’s maximizing your chances for engagement. Our customers have reported a 130% increase in clicks and 200% increase in retweets just by scheduling tweets at the *right* times for *their* audience.

      You are absolutely right though… averages and best practices are totally worthless! The data has to be specific to each individual social account or chance are it will actually work against you.

    • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

      George – Absolutely. My whole point is that most of the data is so generalized that it becomes absolutely irrelevant to any specific industry. We all want to beat the averages so we need to look at the activity by “our” audience, not some generalized approach to the best time to tweet. Thanks so much for joining into the conversation!

  • http://twitter.com/FeistyPR FeistyPR

    Social media is about being social, and being social isn’t a science. It’s about people. 

  • http://twitter.com/FeistyPR FeistyPR

    Social media is about being social, and being social isn’t a science. It’s about people. And people don’t always fit the numbers. 

    • http://about.me/bradleyjoyce bradleyjoyce

       If marketers really want to prove and drive ROI from social media, they *have* to get scientific/methodical about how they approach/use social media.

      There is no reason you can’t couple science with social marketing. In fact, that’s precisely what we’re doing with our product at Socialyzer.

      By having a very deep understanding of your social audience, you can optimize your organic conversations in ways that are basically impossible without that information at your fingertips.

    • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

      True. Though I do think there is validity in looking for trends for how your audience behaves. This can lead to optimization for better testing that is validated by actual results. People are people indeed, but we all have habits that can be analyzed if we are looking at the right data sources. :-) Thanks so much for commenting!

  • http://about.me/bradleyjoyce bradleyjoyce

    Nichole you are so right about all the social media infographics floating around!! It’s really frustrating to see so much bad/irrelevant data being spread around as if it was infallible.

    I wrote about this in a recent blog post about how social media best practices can actually *really* hurt you (http://blog.socialyzerhq.com/post/27490853460/why-social-media-best-practices-are-your-worst-enemy)

    Given that my company is in the space you’re talking about (we help people schedule their posts for maximum impact), we take this stuff very seriously.

    What we’ve found is that it’s absolutely CRITICAL to to restrict the data to a specific user’s (ie, a specific twitter account) audience or audiences that are *extremely* similar. And to be even more effective you really have to look at specific segments inside an audience.

    Luckily all that data is available from the social networks. Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard for the average user/marketer to do the necessarily analysis without the help of a data scientist or someone with a lot of time on their hands.

    That’s where we hope our service can provide a lot of value… by automating the analysis process and providing marketers with real-time, actionable insights.

    Anyway, kudos to you for raising this issue!

    • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

      Bradley – Thank so much for commenting. I’d definitely be interested in seeing some of your data. ;-)

      • http://about.me/bradleyjoyce bradleyjoyce

         Here is a really stark example our algorithms produced for Southwest Airlines. Shows probably of audience engagement during day for National Audience vs San Francisco audience https://img.skitch.com/20120912-p66dxxdeuex1d3a3ri9td6kj2q.png Our algorithm analyzes time of day, day of week and audience activity amongst a couple other things. The difference is deeper than just a timezone shift.

  • Lhotelleriepourlesnuls

    I’m quite happy with these data saying post at this time… I just avoid it not to be the huge flood… Think different!

  • http://www.facebook.com/debbie.romickschultz Debbie Romick-Schultz

    Nothing works better for me than my own data. I’ve been reading data graphs from people I thought were specialists, but the data that works for me is what I get from FB and other social media sites themselves. It takes a little more digging, but who can tell you best what they like to see and when they are most likely to respond than your own followers.

    • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

      Debbie – Great insights! Your own data is so much more relevant than blatant generalities that aren’t relevant to your audience demographics. It makes the extra effort worth it when you can show that the insights are targeted to your market. Thanks so much for commenting.

  • Fionas_h

    I came to Social Media from an analytics and insights background so for me, the lack of credible data makes it hard to take most ‘research’ seriously.
    From data geeks all over the interwebs – thank you for making this point so eloquently!

    • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

      Fionas – I came from an analytics background as well. Nice to have a fellow data junkie in the mix! Thanks so much for commenting.

  • StephanHugg

    This is a staunch review of important strategic points many people overlook, thanks! I’ve found a constant issue in my company (where I’m responsible for social media and online activity) is that our target audience is not clarified amongst dept. heads. Ideas are often put on the table for messaging via social media – perhaps even a specific platform – without a deep understanding of the likely audience using that platform. 

    • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

      Stephan – Thanks for commenting! Yes, people with different ideas that aren’t targeted to the end goal or the right audience are a pervasive issue in a lot of companies. I’ve found that once the audience is clearly defined it makes it so much easier to produce content that is hyper-relevant and ultimately leads to higher ROI. Another interesting thing is when you actually do the research to find your audience, many times it comes back to show that the majority of conversations are happening on blogs and forums. You don’t hear a lot about building a blog and forum engagement strategy, but for many companies it is important. But it’s not sexy to talk about that, now is it. :-) 

  • OBVAVirtualAssistant

    Thanks
    for the boatload of useful tips. Thanks for taking the time to come up with
    this useful post. I will refrain from commenting on the suitability of this new
    change and focus for the meanwhile with jumping on the moment.

  • http://twitter.com/samthompson6 Sam Thompson

    Such a refreshing article, too often there are infographics trending on LinkedIn or being promoted by Mashable which are absolutely useless. Pinterest in particular is the latest platform being touted to fix all your engagement problems, but 99% of the the time data sources are so niche or the sample size so small there is nothing usable you can take away.

    I would never recommend adjusting an approach based on one infographic, no matter how well it is claimed to be sourced or how reputable the company it is coming from. Don’t be lazy, do your own research with your customer base to test if a hypothesis is true.

    • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

      Sam – Great points! It’s so true that we need to do our own research and implement testing before making big decisions. Thanks so much for commenting!

  • http://www.facebook.com/brandie.black Brandie E Black

    I think this article is excellent and right on the money. I definitely think we need to dive deeper into the actual facts, as both authors of infographics and those interpreting them, before we change anything within our social strategy. Better yet, why not take the above advice and come up with our own data conclusions? After all, we all have unique businesses with our own goals. Bottom line for me, social media is great, useful and an effective way to build trust, however the lack of straight up facts are tainting the future of social. Best high school advice I ever received: Question your sources. I will definitely be thinking of this more! Thanks for the great article!

    • http://twitter.com/Nichole_Kelly Nichole Kelly

      Thanks for joining the conversation Brandie. I agree 100%. :-)

  • http://lairigmarketing.typepad.com Kevin

    what a trumped up headline…

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  • http://twitter.com/akgroom Andrew Groom

    Definitely an interesting read!  I think one major issue is that social media is so tied to day-to-day interaction that, just like a trusted friend you’ve known over the years, we feel comfortable trusting those “reliable” sources because they’ve given us something valuable in the past.  

    This just further proves the point that not everything works for everyone, so rather than finding a magic bullet, we should look at data that matters to us and make our own deductions.

  • http://www.wix.com/rainesmaker/creative Glenn Raines

    Thanks for calling this out Nichole. Short of footer citations and “n = sample” — I find most infographics merely entertaining and “pretty.”  I lead a lot of digital and social training and find that I have to amend industry stat slides by conducting my own due diligence to build the citation footers. As a presenter, I need this cited data to maintain my own credibility. This all leads to the need for “industry standards” around infographics and other statistical data, whereas, a templated footer is reserved at the bottom separated by a rule line so that accurately-keyed citations, n=sample, methodology, respondent demos and associated links are clearly displayed. This would go a long way to start earning trust in the data and weed out the others which are merely marketing ploys with an agenda. 

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