100 per cent of adults in the UK are employed by ‘the fabl’, a world-leading Content Marketing Agency based in Yorkshire.*

*According to a 2013 survey carried out by the fabl on 13 adults at Nesfield House, Broughton Hall Business Park.

The importance of circumspection

Clearly, the above statistic is nonsense (the 100 per cent bit, not the world-leading bit – that’s obviously true). Our response base was tiny and highly restricted, and any company that read this data and altered its marketing strategy to appeal solely to employees of the fabl would very quickly find its profits plummeting. This is an extreme example, but one which serves to highlight the importance of circumspection when reading statistical data. And it isn’t as though misleading statistics can only arise from ridiculously-small sample sizes or restricted domains. Even the most representative samples can throw up vastly different results under different interpretations.

In the UK House of Commons, there are 650 seats occupied by members of parliament from different political parties. 304 of these seats are Conservative, 256 Labour, 57 Liberal Democrat, and the remaining 33 are occupied by members from smaller parties such as the Greens and the Democratic Unionist Party. In percentage terms, the house looks like this:

However, if we go by the proportion of votes as cast in the 2010 general election by the entire population, the chart would look slightly different:

Both of these are justifiably representative of the political persuasions of UK voters, but clearly express vastly different results. This is because they operate on different levels of scale: the figures from the House of Commons express that only 9 per cent of constituencies voted for Liberal Democrat members of parliament (compared with 47 per cent for the Conservatives and 40 per cent for Labour) whilst a much greater percentage (23 per cent) of people spread across the nation cast their vote in this way. Taken in isolation, the second chart would give a reader a very misleading account of the political breakdown of the United Kingdom. However, when read with the perspective provided by the first chart, a few things become clear. Most importantly, we can deduce that the relatively large proportion of people who vote Liberal Democrat must be highly concentrated within a very small number of constituencies where they take an overwhelming majority. Therefore, a fervent Liberal Democrat supporter proselytising in the centre of Witney (David Cameron’s constituency) would likely find his words falling on far deafer ears than if he did the same in Sheffield Hallam, where Nick Clegg is the local MP.

Things are not always as they seem

Don’t panic – the fabl hasn’t suddenly become a political think tank, but the above serves to illustrate the importance of perspective when reading statistics about the use of various media channels amongst consumers. By way of analogy, the political parties might be the different social media channels (facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.), and our constituencies are the different demographics. So, although national statistics might show that roughly 11 per cent of adults have a Twitter account1, it would be wrong to assume that this is representative of your market. When read with the perspective provided by a demographic study2, we can see that most of these fall within the ‘early adopters’ category, likely to be comprised of males between 18 and 25 years of age. If members of this demographic don’t make up a particularly large proportion of your audience, then an 11 per cent allocation of your time and marketing spend on Twitter would be wasteful. On the other hand, if this is your market, then the same allocation wouldn’t be taking enough advantage of a potentially vastly lucrative marketing channel.

Social strategies must be carefully focused

The importance of a carefully-focused social media marketing strategy cannot be over-emphasised. The 2013 Media Consumer Survey, published by Deloitte, highlights that “It is important for those attempting to reach consumers through social networks to understand that these are still very much a niche service, and careful targeting is necessary”. Across the Atlantic, Nielsen reinforces this perspective by saying that the top performing companies “were also much more precise in their use of mass media.”3 It would be foolish, therefore, to read national (or even global) statistics without remaining mindful of the nature of your own audience. You should always try to find an accompanying demographic study, or even a report which specifically covers your audience.

Statistical viability

It is, however, very possible for a study to be too ‘micro’, with a highly-focused group of respondents which sadly fails to return statistically viable results. An example of this would be a recent study into the social media usage of professionals in the catering industry4. According to the survey, 53 per cent of these people use facebook, and 46 per cent use twitter. A whopping 70 per cent of respondents believe that brands should make greater use of these social media channels when targeting their market, and 80 per cent believe that online and social media channels are eclipsing traditional trade press. You would be forgiven, if your business operated within the foodservice industry, for believing that you had hit on the Holy Grail of market reports. However, with a total respondent base of 140 catering professionals (this number goes down to 34 for some questions) who answered the survey using online channels, the statistical viability of the results is thrown worryingly into question.

Take nothing on face value

The vital moral of this story is the importance of using a bit of grey matter when reading market reports and consumer statistics. It is almost always a mistake to take what is being said on face value, and attempt to implement a successful online marketing strategy on the basis of what you are being told. Establish a firm grasp on the nature of your audience, and be mindful of this when doing your research so that you can more effectively allocate your time and money.


1 Ofcom: http://stakeholders.ofcom.org.uk/binaries/research/cmr/cmr12/UK_4.pdf

2 Deloitte: http://www.deloitte.com/assets/Dcom-UnitedKingdom/Local%20Assets/Documents/Industries/TMT/uk-tmt-media-consumer-full-report.pdf

3 Nielsen: http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/newswire/2013/focus-on-the-customer–win-the-customer.html

4 Jellybean Creative: http://www.jellybeancreative.co.uk/bloom-infographic/