An Axiom For New Media: Big Numbers are NOT the Same as Meaningful Numbers

It seems like everything we hear about the new media world is based on big numbers. Hundreds of millions of these and bazillions of those – all delivered with mega-pico-tetra zillions of impressions. Why do we keep falling for big numbers?

I have this theory that we all have an instinctive built-in “adjustment” we apply to sales or promotional numbers. It goes like this: “They say it will save me thousands of dollars. I bet they’re over-stating. But if it still saves me hundreds, I’m happy. So I’ll buy it.” Unfortunately, once the numbers are big enough, our instinctive adjustment isn’t enough – but we use it anyway.

The yell & sell infomercial guys figured this out long ago. In yell & sell, they often make the numbers so huge that even after we adjust the numbers, they’re still impressive. And the truth is, manipulation with these numbers sells a lot of product. (There’s probably an interesting dissertation for someone in figuring out the differences between categories where we adjust by 20% and others where we adjust by an order of magnitude as in my example.)

New media evangelists have picked up this yell & sell gamut and draped it with the credibility of being “measured ROI”, by having the numbers come from a research firm, or by having them “audited”.

Here’s a great Lady Gaga one I heard at a Google presentation: “Lady Gaga posted a music video and got 95 million views in a year. Just think about it, only 500,000 people are watching MTV at any point in time.”

Wow. That sounds really important. Even with my 20% adjustment, she got 75 million views & that’s a lot more than 500,000. This obviously must be meaningful.

Except… Let’s start with why Lady Gaga’s successful. I agree, her numbers are big. In fact, they’re far beyond the typical numbers in the music business. And what drives them? Her ability to be provocative in ways that generate nearly non-stop coverage in the …wait for it… traditional media. In other words, the online activity is driven primarily by off-line media.

But this MTV comparison must be important. Right? Actually, no. Not really.

In terms of viewer minutes, Lady Gaga’s videos got about 385 million viewer minutes in a year. MTV accumulates nearly twice as many viewer minutes (720 million) in a single day that Lady Gaga gets in a year. And in a year, they accumulate 263 billion viewer minutes. So Lady Gaga, the extreme exception, delivers 700 times fewer viewer minutes per year even with driving her viewings with excessive traditional media.

So the example’s meaningless. But it gets worse. MTV sells advertising during its viewing hours. Lady Gaga’s economic power? Hard to calculate. But, nowhere near the economic power of MTV.

There’s another funny psychology about these numbers. That difference seems so big that it’s intimidating – even if they “feel” wrong, there aren’t many people with the skills and focus to sort out the lie that’s contained in them. So too many people “give up” to the numbers figuring that Lady Gaga must be bigger than MTV.

Google Uses the Big Numbers Ploy with YouTube. Just read a little literature about YouTube and you’re deep into the big numbers BS. “Over 48 hours of video are posted every minute” was what I read in one recent article.

Seems impressive. Seems like there must be something important just because the number is so big. Seems like there’s gotta be great marketing value in all the posting.

But let’s get real. Half of those hours don’t relate to US market. Twenty three of the remaining 24 are poorly shot video of things like dumb cat tricks. And of the remainder, only 30 minutes has any potential for real value. And that adds up to about 4,000 hours of video posted every year that has value in the US market. Split that into a 2 minute average length and we have 120,000 useful videos each year. That’s probably a bit low, but it certainly is more meaningful than “48 hours per minute”.

I can’t speak for Google’s intent with these numbers. But the end result is that we get an impression of “importance” without actually getting any data.

Google is Not Alone in This. In many ways, we might call this “intimidation with big numbers” and it’s quite common with online companies. I highly recommend reading this interesting analysis of Facebook’s carefully selected choice of numbers to release.

And the next time you hear about big new media numbers, multiply your normal adjustment reflex to cut what you’re told by an additional factor of 10, 100, or possibly 1,000. THAT’s how you get rid of over-statement with new media.

Or even better, ignore what’s been said until you can use real numbers to put it in perspective. Only then will we all be able to make decisions based on reality.

Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved

About Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett is an expert introducing innovative consumer products and services to market while driving higher return on innovation investment. His career has been spent in innovation and he is the president of Protonik, LLC - an innovation consultancy focused on marketing and innovation. Prior to founding Protonik, he was founder and CEO of ad agency Atomic Direct.

9 Responses to An Axiom For New Media: Big Numbers are NOT the Same as Meaningful Numbers

  1. howiespm says:

    Hi Doug love this post. I am going to email you a similar take I did guest posting on another blog that I got some nice feed back on. I come from B2B Industrial Sales. I have worked in every heavy industry except mining and every part of a business except HR and Accounting (yes even packed boxes in a warehouse). Marketers somehow are really gullible and they hype each other. The CEO and CFO aren’t suckers which is why to me the CMO has such a short tenure (less than a year at fortune 500 companies the last data I saw) vs other C-Suite positions. I see this stuff regurgitated on Twitter all the time and everytime I wind up clicking a link on Mashable those poor writers get an earful from me.

    Your analysis for Lady Gaga is amazing. I also like to use Uniques. Would you rather get 1 million views with 10,000 uniques each viewing 100 times or 100,000 views each viewed by one unique person. Marketers always choose 1 million. And I dated a woman a bit young for me 2 years ago who used You Tube as her jukebox. She easily could ‘listen’ to a song on You Tube 10, 20 times in a week. So often the gross numbers are impact by time and repetition.

    Thank you for coming by my blog!

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Thanks for the great thoughts. I look forward to seeing your other take. I’ve been amazed at how lying with numbers has reached new heights in the past few years.


  2. Hi Doug (and thanks Howie for referring the post to me)… your words resonate strongly, and I agree with you wholeheartedly that the numbers manipulations perpetrated by media companies (particularly in analytics) have been grossly misinformed and misrepresented for years (if not decades). Your position on meaning, in my honest opinion, equates to context and poses questions such as: What is the relational value of a piece of media? How does it propagate? Who adopts (or consumes) that content and why? With whom are these pieces shared?

    Under the lens of context, (and without deference to “social analytics” or unstructured/structured data or traditional/non-traditional media), it seems that media companies refuse to look at the cornerstone of consumption and the primary impetus for purchase behavior — which is influence.

    The Lady Gaga example is perfect, and to add, Lady Gaga’s true fan base – those folks who actually influence her persona and the people who buy products related to her brand – are actually around 60 people. Yes, SIX-ZERO, out of the established 80 million or so who have been defined as her “audience”.

    I have more on the topic of influence here (including a bit more on the Lady Gaga example):



    • Doug Garnett says:

      Gunther –

      That’s an interesting post.

      One of the challenges is that sometimes big numbers are exactly what we should consider. And at other times small numbers are more meaningful – so there’s no general rule.

      Except, of course, my suggestion that with new media we should take big numbers cautiously because there’s a culture of misleading with big numbers. So my suggestion is more one of “take it cautiously”. And, when big numbers prove to be important numbers, too, then we should run with them.


      Doug Garnett

  3. howiespm says:

    That was an excellent post Gunther

  4. In defense of big numbers, they’re all you’ve got when you’re only pulling the “attention” part of AIDA. For a brand-new product or a nonprofit’s public awareness campaign, traffic indicates your ads are beginning to work. Of course, I think you’ll agree, the meaningful numbers are the small ones coming out of the “action” side.

    It’s likely that, as Howie G. writes in the linked article, the small numbers are “embarrassing.” Considering all the snarky stories of self-proclaimed “social media gurus” who forget marketing’s supposed to sell a product, though, I wonder if they realize 3% response rates are average for direct mail and cold calling. Are they scared to publicize 5% conversions because they seem too small?

    • Doug Garnett says:

      @Anna –

      You are exactly right for the reasons they’re used. AND, Google’s gotten lazy and keeps intimidating with big numbers – instead of enlightening with important numbers.

      Perhaps, we should look at where big meaningless numbers are used most often in order to figure out who’s really struggling to establish a long term strategy. YouTube is one such place. Everything is “big” with YouTube – except I have yet to see meaningful numbers there.

      But it’s not just new media. My world of TV sometimes suffers from big number abuse. But Nielsen’s are well enough understood and have been used for strategic planning for so long that the industry understands their weaknesses and does an appropriate level of discounting.

      And, I’m in the direct response corner of television – where we count phone call responses and look at media effectiveness based on those real numbers.

      Love the “embarassing” idea. That’s quite true.

      Thanks for the thoughts…


  5. Pingback: Award Show Skepticism: An “Effie” for Old Spice? « Doug Garnett's Blog

  6. Pingback: Award Show Skepticism: An "Effie" for Old Spice? | Doug Garnett's Blog

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