The truth about statistics and trust
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As a marketer, I’m always on the lookout for relevant stats that support my content. As a former journalist, I make sure that the information comes from original and credible sources and that I attribute it to them.

Unfortunately, not everyone is so careful.

Here’s why it’s bad: People want to know they can trust your brand. Trust is the key to buying decisions. If prospects can’t trust your brand, they won’t buy your products and services.

Trump ethical competence

the Edelman Trust Barometer 2020, a survey of more than 34,000 people, found that business ethics are three times more important than trust competence.

In other words, if prospects believe you are being honest, they will listen to you.

By extension, that means they will turn to you for credible, relevant, and useful content. If you don’t verify the data and be transparent about where it comes from, you will undermine trust in your brand and the audience you’ve worked so hard for.

Bad statistics undermine confidence

Seventy-six percent of respondents to the Edelman survey said they were worried about fake news. They don’t trust most of the sources they get information from. Your brand has the ability to change that.

Here are five ways to do that with your content:

  1. Look for statistics from credible sources. Examine the sources. Check out their « About » pages to see who they are and what makes them authoritative. How do they know? What is the date of their statistics? Can you verify the information elsewhere?

Where to find credible sources:

  • Google Scholar lists original scholarly research. The search results are narrower than what you would get with a regular Google search.
  • BASED is a search engine for academic resources and provides access to over 240 million documents.
  • google books is a searchable database of books and magazines that Google has digitized.
  • Electronic and print resources from public libraries, including databases of news articles and journals, and reference books.
  • Contact an expert using our list as a guide.
  • The Society of Professional Journalists’ fact-checking database has many tools, resources and guides.
  • Open the online data sources. Many governments and organizations share access to their data for free in the public interest. Google « open and free data sources » for a long list of databases that you can access.
  • Statista has over a million stats on over 80,000 topics, but it requires a paid subscription.

2. Always cite original sources for your statistics. If you find a statistic that credits another source for the information, search for the data from the original source. Second-hand information is unreliable and may be incorrect.

I recently went to the Source Check Burrow when I tried to find an attribution for it Marketo statistic:

« 93% of B2B companies say content marketing generates more leads than traditional marketing strategies. »

What is the problem? The blog post where this statistic appears cites Forbes as the source. Meanwhile, Forbes Marketo Credits for information. This means that there is no original source, making the information impossible to verify.

3. Look for prejudices. Suppose you are looking for statistics that show a direct return on investment in content marketing. They are not easy to find. This is probably why marketers often cite this Demand statistics:

« Content marketing generates about three times as many leads as traditional marketing. »

What is the problem? Demand Metric sells marketing software and solutions, and has a vested interest in promoting information that benefits the business. Before using statistics, no matter where they come from, ask yourself, « Are they biased? » What did they omit? Are other reliable sources questioning their data? « 

Statistics - links

Another problem with the demand metric statistic is that it comes from an infographic that lists four sources at the bottom for all the information in the chart. Only two of the four source links work. None of these things mention that content marketing generates three times as many leads as traditional marketing.

Where does the information come from? Who knows?

Also, the infographic does not include a date, so there is no way to know the age of the statistic. The Marketo blog post I noted above also uses statistics from the demand metric infographic. Regurgitating data without validating the information perpetuates errors.

4. Provide the context and the full picture of the data. It is misleading to use statistics without context. One of the most basic examples of this is not saying how many people participated in a survey. The number of participants is essential to establish the meaning of the numerical data.

Statistics - Sample size

For example, this LinkedIn article includes many statistics that illustrate the value of thought leadership, but does not say how many people responded. The article states:

  • 88% of decision makers agree that thought leadership is effective in improving their perception of an organization.
  • 47% of C-suite executives say they shared their contact details after reading thought leadership.
  • 61% of C-suite leaders say they are more willing to pay a premium to work with an organization that has articulated a clear vision.

What is the problem? When a statistic shows that 88% of decision makers believe thought leadership is effective, we don’t know the sample size. Eighty-eight percent of the 150 participants are not statistically significant. Eighty-eight percent of the 15,000 participants are overweight.

The lack of context is also misleading when using data without comparison. For example, if you say that content marketers increased the use of thought leadership by 70% in 2020, that begs the question of « what? » Is this a 70% increase over the previous year or some other period?

Selecting data that supports an agenda is another tactic. If you select only the data that supports the conclusion you want and ignore the data that contradicts it, you are dishonest and influential readers.

5. Do not use data from surveys that paid participants. Getting people to participate in a survey introduces the perception of bias and erodes trust. When I was working on an article about remote working (pre-pandemic), I found many sources that were promoting the benefits of remote working. I wanted to offer a more balanced view, so I reached out to an author whose recent book covered some of the challenges people face when working from home.

Her LinkedIn page featured interviews with national media, accolades from established organizations, recommendations from colleagues and many followers. His book was based on a study he conducted. It turned out that I was lucky that he did not respond to my interview request.

What is the problem? A few digs revealed the fine print indicating that study participants were being paid. Payments and other incentives can improve recruitment for surveys and influence responses. Anyone who’s taken a quiz to receive a free iPad or Visa gift card knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Embrace transparency

Using statistics to support ideas and conclusions is a great way to improve your content. Before including them, however, be sure to validate them for their relevance, authority, and credibility, and always cite original sources. The reputation of your brand depends on it.

Now to you

Do you check the stats before using them? Have you ever massaged data to prove a point? Let us know in the comments below.

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