How Data Hype is Destroying Your Social Media ROI

It's time to get more critical about data

by Nichole Kelly |
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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.


About the Author

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