Digital media and the idiocy of the big number

Delivering the keynote lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival, Newscorp Europe and Asia boss James Murdoch came out with a good soundbite, namely that we have “analogue attitudes in a digital age.” Murdoch
was obviously talking about TV and his speech involved taking aim at
the publicly funded BBC in particular, but it’s a nice line to describe
a lot of what goes on in this space. Take our continued obsession with
the big number for example.

Exhibit A, the other day Comscore released its latest Twitter stats. ‘Twitter more popular than the BBC!’ said Netimperative and TechRadar.
But, as I said on my home blog, saying you have 50 million monthly
visitors is not the same as saying you have 50 million users.

First you have to take away the duplicate accounts (for example I have registered four IDs, only two of which are active). And on that note, you then have to subtract the number that register but never participate – according to Hubspot 54.9% of tweeple have never tweeted, and I don’t buy the line that ‘they are all listening.’

Then you have to look at the % of power tweeple, the people who really do use it, and (according to Sysmos) you are left with 5% of the total. So just over 2.5 million.

‘Oh well, waste of time, very few people do use it then’ will say the nay-sayers (of which there are plenty),
but the whole point is that looking at the raw number is completely
pointless. What’s important is who they are and what they do.

Exhibit B – I’ve fallen into this particular trap of proclaiming that newspapers are more popular than ever thanks to the Internet.

– sure the basic stats show that the Guardian online gets a huge
audience compared to the web edition….yet (assuming I care about UK
consumers only), a high proportion of that audience comes from abroad. And stats from Columbia Journalism Review show that 88% of newspaper reading time is in print, while Malcom Coles in the Online Journalism blog figured out that most online newspaper readers only look at one page.

The comparison is therefore completely artificial due to the fact that the way we read online and print is completely different.

Exhibit C – The other day there was chatter that ‘RSS’ might be ‘dead.’ Why? Asks Patricio Robles of eConsultancy.
“RSS may not be as popular as Twitter or Facebook but who says it has
to be?…not every technology has to achieve 90%+ adoption to be

The fact is we’re taking an offline metrics way of thinking and hauling it online. It doesn’t work that way. And the problem with using the big number is that it’s very easy to puncture it.

Exhibit D, Twitter has in the past been unfavourably compared to the virtual world Second Life in terms of hype, sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly. The point is though that Second Life also in its heyday suffered from large user numbers being banded about.

mid 2007 there was talk of 10-15 million Second Life
residents…completely untrue when you took out duplicate accounts,
people who registered but never came back…sound familiar? That number was so over inflated that it was easy to puncture, sparking a debate about the ‘real’ number of users (I gather it’s currently about 750k human beings).

thinking is that we like to see a big number so that we (in marketing)
can tick a box and say ‘job done, I reached X many people.’ Digital
thinking is we put the big number to one side and instead look at two
things that are more important: Engagement (does anyone care enough to
pass it on) and influence (who exactly are we reaching?)

Or as Norwegian brand strategist Helge Tenno says his latest blog post “traditional
media is a battle between stories…in social media, we are not
engaging in stories, we are engaging in the exchange of ideas.”
Two completely different things. As Kevin Slavin (quoted in Helge’s post) puts it:

relationship between media and social media is like the relationship
between egg and eggplant. They share a couple of the same letters, but
they are not in the same taxonomy.”