Don’t let ghost statistics haunt your marketing

There are a lot of ghosts lurking in content all across the web. I’m talking about ghost statistics: nebulous facts and figures that get quoted time and time again. No-one knows where they came from (or cares enough to find out) but they sound good, so they keep on using them.

As an experienced content marketer, I’ve heard so many times that “using data in your content is a great way to strengthen it and help your audience trust what you’re saying.”

But using the wrong data can just as easily undermine that trust. Which is why it’s essential for content marketers to go the extra mile, and check the data you’re using before using it to back up your point.

I’ll give you a couple of examples of how ghost stats have haunted my own career to date, and then a few pointers for making sure you’re using only solid, quality data in your content going forward.

Ghost statistic #1: The Sourceless Stat Online

This is a super recent example, which is what got me thinking about this to begin with.

I was working on a timed project as part of the hiring process for a company I was very interested in working with. I’m always super impressed with their content so (obviously) I wanted to do a great job. The task was to write an introduction, a couple of headings, and a body section of an article, and to identify a few different data sources that would be useful to reference in the article.

I found what felt like the perfect stat to reference in my introduction: Viewers retain 95% of a message when they watch it in a video compared to 10% when reading it in text.

In fact, I found that stat quoted in several different articles as I was reading around the topic. But each time, there was no source given. It was just written in the body of the article, just like I’ve done here.

Eventually, I found an infographic, which led me to a stats roundup post, which led me to a different stats roundup post which… didn’t even have that statistic in.

🤦‍♀️

So I wasted a quarter of my project time trying to find a reputable source for this stat that I’d seen time and time again in my reading. At first glance, it seemed reputable: I’d seen it half a dozen times in different places. It was the perfect stat to back up the points I wanted to make. But no source, so no stat.

Instead I found some different data points and changed the direction of my article, rather than compromise on quality and rely on some shady data that may or may not exist. No harm done.

Ghost Statistic #2: The Sourceless Stat in a Business

That last example? Not really the biggest problem. I wanted to write a thing but then I had to write something different instead. Not the end of the world. So here’s an example of how ghost stats can have the potential to wreak a whole load of havoc on a business if you don’t keep an eye on them.

A long time ago I worked with a small company, and as part of my onboarding process the founder walked me through a slide deck sharing an intro to the company, the products, and the problems they were solving. There was a stat in that deck that highlighted a massive problem for businesses, and tied in nicely with their value prop.

The longer I stayed in that company, the more often I saw that stat. It was in sales decks, product information packs, marketing resources…

And then every few months I’d get a message from my boss or from the CEO asking if I could dig out that stat and a link to the source. 

🤷‍♀️

Eventually I found a slide deck that was several years old, with a footnote linking out to a piece of research that was several years older than that.

Hurrah! Finally, a source for that elusive stat.

Except… whoever used it first had misquoted that statistic.

Yes, that statistic that underpinned most of the conversations about the value of the product and the ROI it could deliver. It was in everything… and it was wrong. Which meant the company had accidentally been misleading folks (prospects, customers, employees, competitors…) for years.

😬

Banish the ghosts: 3 things to look for when using data in your marketing

Sometimes ghost stats are a minor inconvenience. Sometimes they create a massive problem. And you never know which way it’ll fall. Because most people won’t check the provenance of a stat when reading your content. But some will.

So how can you banish the ghosts from your content, and use solid, reliable data instead?

  1. No source? Don’t use it. Do what I did above, and find something else. It might mean you have to rethink your article or deck, but surely that’s a price worth paying.
  2. Link to the original source. CXL found that research articles are one of the best types of content for generating backlinks, and that aggregating research from multiple sources may be just as effective as doing your own. If you’re quoting a stat in your content, link to the original source, not the article where you found it.
  3. Invest in original research. Can’t find a good source for data on a specific topic? Are you able to do your own? That has a double benefit: you’ll have a ton of good data to share yourself, and you’ll become the source people reference in their own content.

Don’t let ghost stats haunt your work

If you’re the person commissioning or creating content for your business, then you’re responsible for the quality and trustworthiness of that content. As marketers, we talk a lot about how content is important for building a relationship with your audience, and what gets missed from that discussion is the role of content marketers as the caretakers or guardians of that relationship.

These empty stats may look good, and they may be the perfect data to back up your point, but in the long run they’ll erode the trust your audience has in you and your work. As marketers, we can do better.