February 16, 2017

Interpreting Research Bullshit

We poor oppressed advertising and marketing people are daily fed many flavors of bullshit.

One of the least understood is research bullshit. Research, because it sports the veneer of science, is generally not subjected to the same degree of scrutiny as, say, media bullshit or creative bullshit.

But, make no mistake, research bullshit is just as pervasive in our sorrowful world.

Here at the headquarters of Ad Contrarian Labs, we like to feature some nice research bullshit every now and then just to stay on our toes and keep our readers on the lookout.

Yesterday I was reading a piece in the Research Brief From The Center For Media Research. Now, I have no idea where the Center For Media Research is, but based on the logo at the top of the page, I have a feeling it's a laptop in the basement of the MediaPost office.

Anyway, the story in question was a little convoluted so I'm not going to recap the whole thing (if you want to read it you can find it here.) But I want to highlight a couple of "facts" found in the article. The study in question, done by a company called Kibo, reported that...
  • "94% of consumers do research online before visiting a store"
  • "92% of consumers reported interactive content influences them to make a purchase"
Now these are very impressive numbers. They give the impression that people hardly buy anything before researching it online, and are amazingly influenced by interactive content. But as is so often the case with sneaky online data, it means nothing of the sort.

The problem here is not that the numbers are wrong, it's that they are grossly, and perhaps intentionally, misleading.

Here's how this baloney works.

It's hard to tell from the article what period of time this study encompasses, but it seems to be six months. Let's assume that.

So if you went online once in September to check the price of motor oil at Costco, you are one of the 94% of consumers who "do research online before visiting a store." You may have shopped for thousands of items in the months before and after and never gone online to do "research before visiting a store" but if you did it once, you are one of the 94%.

Similarly, if you happened to once come across a tweet that said you could save $1 on a pizza you ordered, then "interactive content" influenced you to make a purchase. You are among the 92%.

This is the same type of deceptive horseshit that a few years ago lead to the absurd "fact" that "60% of shoppers use QR codes." Yeah, right.

What's obvious here is that if the researchers wanted to do a serious analysis on the impact of "online research" on shopping, and the influence of "interactive content" on purchasing behavior, they would have reported on the frequency of each behavior, which is much more relevant, not the reach. But I doubt it would have made for very clickable "facts."

I mean, what kind of story would you have if the facts turned out be...
  • 6% of items are researched online before they are bought
  • 2% of purchases are influenced by interactive content

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