As any politician, publicist or PR person knows, one can prove absolutely anything with statistics! And in a region, such as ours, where reliable statistics for many things are so hard to come by, people certainly try! As veteran journalist and long-term UAE resident Peter Hellyer rightly says in Tuesday’s National newspaper, scarcely a week goes by without a new survey statistic hitting the headlines and often with highly questionable conclusions.
Spot On’s love of statistics is well-known and one of the motivators for the agency investing in research about the region’s digital habits has been the lack of useful research available in the public domain. It may seem like more facts and figures are coming to light, but the problem isn’t really going away. The Internet services that now make it so easy for anyone to carry out and publish surveys are helping to fuel a glut of ill-thought-through research that misinforms and misleads. In fact, the amount of poor research and analysis in the market has gone up by 300%! (sorry, couldn’t resist!)
I wish that we could say that these statistics were all simply the work of young marketers on a learning curve or small businesses trying to do the best they can. However, the reality is that many large corporations, influential media groups and well established agencies are just as guilty, and news media are often complicit for the sake of a good headline.
Key for marketers is understanding audience demographics and habits. “50% of UAE women buy cosmetics online” (statistic made up) might make a nice headline, but surveys, save for the national census, never get to ask each person in the country the question. Marketing inspired surveys draw on company databases, third party mailing lists, event registrations, publication subscriptions, website visits and many other sources. Naturally, a survey using a sample of a business-to-business marketing database is likely to yeild different data compared to a consumer database. These days different mailing lists and online media may also target different types of Internet users, with different characteristics (so, does the survey reflect the opinions of social media power-users, digital natives or those who mainly use one or two apps?).
Issues of demographics can be compounded when surveys aim to cover multiple countries. A survey of Internet users in the UAE, with 70% of the country online, can mean different things to a survey in Saudi Arabia, where Internet penetration is below 50% (for example, what does “40% of respondents shop online” mean in context of each country;’s population?). Add language, age, gender and other national differences and it’s easy to get wrong-footed with Middle East survey headlines.
Unfortunately, it’s merely a hop, skip and a jump from someone’s hastily put together piece of research, to a misleading news headline. And, if you’re not careful, straight into your marketing plan.
Read more opinion from Carrington Malin
Communication first, technology second (Apr 2012)
Can we say Twitter revolution now? Can we? (Jan 2011)
Ten Middle East digital predictions for 2011 (Jan 2011)