While the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will be up to, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician.
– Arthur Conan Doyle
Torture numbers, and they’ll confess to anything.
– Gregg Easterbrook
The blogosphere was baffled again late yesterday with statistics coming out of that venerable research firm Forrester. This time, bloggers took the hit as their communication tools showed up on the very bottom of the list of trusted information sources. It turns out, the people surveyed trusted personal email almost five times as much as they trust corporate blogs. Hell, they trusted message board posts more than corporate blogs! The numbers, as Josh Bernoff himself commented, are bleak:
We examined these results further. Among people who regularly read blogs (at least once a month), 24% trust company blogs. Among people who blog themselves, 39% trust them. These are low numbers any way you slice it.
This isn’t the first time that Forrester has issued some rather surprising and depressing statistics. Back in October, the company declared that only 11 percent of consumers are using RSS.
Now I’m not about to argue that Forrester is wrong. I’m pretty confident that these numbers are accurate. But we need to sit down, take a deep breath, and figure out exactly what Forrester is measuring.
In the case of the much touted RSS statistic, I’ll quote Mashable:
You can’t ask mainstream users whether or not they use RSS in their daily course of Internet usage any more than you can ask the average couch potato whether or not they use Cathode Ray Tubes or Liquid Crystal Displays.
The truth is that it’s pretty difficult to hit a website these days that doesn’t use RSS in some way, shape or fashion. If you look at the average page here on Mashable, there are about two or three sections which rely on RSS to pull in information relevant to the readers. If you turn your attention to the most popular sites on the web, sites like Facebook, MySpace and Google all have syndicated content strewn all through them.
While only 12 percent fessed up to not knowing what RSS was, I’ll bet the number of clueless consumers is significantly higher–one indication of that was the 45% who were “neither disinterested or interested in using RSS in the future.”
Let’s see what one expert has to say about this kind of use of statistics:
(Was Scott Adams inspired by the Forrester report? Probably not–he writes his strips a few weeks in advance.)
I enjoyed what Dwight Silverman had to say about the “Luddite” crowd of social media naysayers–of course, he was speaking of folks that were at least savvy enough to figure out how to comment on his blog posts.
So let’s come back to how Forrester conducted its most recent survey. Josh Bernoff took great care to qualify the data as much as possible in describing the methods and the limitations of the survey (emphasis his):
A note about how we collect data. The data comes from an online survey we conducted in Q2 of this year. Our online panel is as representative as we can make if of the US online adult population (18 and older). Companies use our data all the time, and I believe it’s the best available survey of its kind; we’ve been conducting surveying consumers since 1997. In this case, we surveyed over 5000 people. We asked them to rate how much they trust information sources on a five-point scale, from 1 (don’t trust at all) to 5 (trust completely). Respondents could also answer that they didn’t use a particular information source. In this case about 80% of those we polled said they did use corporate blogs. Of those who used them, only 16% rated them 4 or 5 on the five-point trust scale.
Re-read those last two sentences, and re-think your conclusions. Step down off the ledge, and read some of Josh’s own advice:
This means that if you blog, your goal should be to create a blog about which people say “I like that – I don’t think of it as a company blog.” For the most part, that’s a hurdle you need to jump to gain their trust. I don’t mean to hide who is writing the blog. I mean it has to be more about your customers than it is about you.
Blogs exclusively about companies and products are what I think generate these low trust ratings. So don’t do a blog like that.
Did you take these recent surveys with a grain of salt?