Stats don’t lie …. interpretations do

Maybe lie is a harsh word, but they can certainly be misleading, and wrong.

I recently read an article, ok, an infographic because my ability to give attention to research and trends is vastly limited by the amount of work I have to accomplish, that noted 87% of the world population had mobile phones. It then went on to talk about smart phones and apps.

The article, sorry, infographic, did include a disclaimer that based on the number of phones vs. the total global population the percentage would tend to be skewed, because many people and companies own more than one phone. Then it went back to talking about apps and smart phones.

Here’s the deal. Not all mobile phones are smart phones, so the entire infographic is misleading. I’m a marketer, so I’m pretty sure this was intentional, too.

Next up is the issue of mobile phone usage, which indicated that there is 103% ownership in the Americas, 119.5% in Europe, 96.7% in Arab States, and on and on. What it doesn’t have a disclaimer for is that many of these are not used much.

Many areas in the world do not have phone lines, therefore the only communication option available is mobile phones. That doesn’t mean they’re getting text messages, surfing the net, or posting pictures and videos of their dogs on social sites, or even that they’re downloading apps.

Chances are those in many areas don’t use mobile technology other than to make some emergency calls. Oh, but wait, the infographic does go on about how mobile phones are used, noting video, search, browsing, etc. It doesn’t even mention texting or calls.

The combination of the stats presented are frighteningly naive, and intentionally misleading. Take a couple snippets of information, leave out the connecting line, but put both pieces up there in the same presentation and pretend it’s the reader drawing the conclusion and not the marketer presenting it skewed on purpose,

That is how marketers got everyone in their underwear to add QR codes to their marketing mix. You need it, everyone’s doing it, see? The reality?

Most people

  1. don’t know what they are,
  2. don’t know what to do with them, and
  3. couldn’t care less and won’t make the effort if they DO know what to do to scan it.

That’s fine too, since most of the marketing out there that HAS QR codes in it doesn’t use it properly anyway. (for more on that see my previous post)

I read another blog recently about health care marketing. It talked about the top channels for conversions, then the top channels for complaints. The presentation, done by a combination of a pharmaceutical company and their agency (which means the agency did it and got the client to allow their logo to be used for credibility and camaraderie) gave recommendations based on their “joint” study. In a nutshell, the top converting sales channel was in person reps. The top complaints were online detailing and some other things. No problem there, the stats are stats, and they were presented in order of percentages, with the numbers clearly noted. (lets assume the questions and research were done thoroughly and correctly.)

The issue came when the recommendations were given, and only the percentage of complaints and issues were addressed. Someone didn’t do the math. If you have a 5% complaint rate for in-person reps, but you have 1000 reps, but a 50% complaint rate for 100 docs using an online tool, which one has the bigger problem and should be addressed first? If you’re a stats person without time to think, you say the big old negative one, the 50% problem one.  If you have a brain, you say, uh, the rep one, because while both net out at 50 complaints, the rep has a higher chance of pissing people off long term, a higher rate of conversion when done correctly, and 100 docs on an online app doesn’t make for a decent pool for stats.

So the point is, stop relying on stats and think about what they mean. Check the interpretations!

I know, I know, it takes forever to pull the stats together, there’s no time to interpret them. True, in many cases. Then put together an ROI chart for your boss to get some tools. But in the case of this infographic, the one on mobile phone usage, the stats showed up in your inbox or twitter feed and you plucked them for your own use, then back researched the originating report for the numbers themselves.

Marketers everywhere will now take that and use it as if were valid, useful, pertinent information. You have exponentially set expectations awry. Congratulations, and thank you. (go on, you know you want to, google 87% mobile and see how many jumped on that bandwagon of stats!)

So I started this saying that interpretations of stats lie. Maybe it sounded harsh, but I’m going to stick with it. If you are putting out materials that interpret statistics to an audience and are representing yourself as an expert, authority or thought leader, then your interpretations better be valid, and stand up to the thinking.

Think. Please. You can change an industry in 140 characters or less.


About Laurissa Doonan

I'm a marketer. I've been a professional marketer for over 25 years, but in reality, I have always been one. Marketing to me is about communicating effectively, regardless of platform, regardless of channel. Marketing is understanding both your objectives and your audience, and finding the right method and message for your customers to reach them where they are. Now I dedicate my efforts to helping very small and small companies pursue their passions and grow their businesses through marketing; providing agency trained expertise without the overhead.
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