Social media numbers: The data quality challenge

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One of my biggest problems with social media is its emphasis on simple numbers.

That might seem like an odd statement coming from guy who bleeds data and maintains an active social media presence.

Let me explain this apparent contradiction.

I meet plenty of people who brag about having X number of followers on Twitter or Facebook "friends." They unabashedly promote the number of "shares" for their posts. They take a little too much pride in their Klout scores for my liking. Some people even make hiring decisions on numbers like these.

Is there anything fundamentally wrong with using numbers like these?

Well, sort of.

The Case For

To be sure, numbers can serve as useful starting points when assessing a potential business relationship. After all, anyone can claim to be anything these days. Looking at the data, though, how influential can someone be on a social network such as Twitter with only 30 followers and 15 tweets? Alternatively, I don't know the intricacies of Klout's proprietary algorithm but, all else being equal, a relatively low Klout score connotes a relatively small influence.

On a personal level, let's say that I want to send a free copy of one of my books to someone:

  • Saul sports a decent Twitter following, professional website with a good number of backlinks, and the like.
  • Hank is just starting out as a blogger and doesn't really "get" social media yet.

I only can give away one copy. Who gets it?

I am far more inclined to ship a copy Saul's way. It's not even close.

The Case Against

It's not hard to artificially augment social numbers. Want to up your Klout score overnight? Go right ahead. Want to purchase followers on Twitter? Thanks to eBay and other sites, that's only a few clicks away. Buying low-quality web traffic isn't terribly difficult to do either. In fact, I'm hard-pressed to think of a social network or web "metric" that one can't easily game with the desire and a few bucks.

Broadly speaking, the data quality in these instances if often lacking if not altogetehr nonexistent. For instance, I can claim that my blog posts receive 5,000 impressions via Twitter alone with the following specious math:

1 tweet * 5,000 followers = 5,000 impressions

Using the same logic, I've had people excitedly tell me that my one-hour Twitter chats have generated 60,000 impressions! Statements like these prove that Mark Twain's quote about "lies, damned lies, and statistics" is alive and well. There's just no way that all of my followers saw each and every one of those tweets, never mind were "impressed" by them. I would bet my house on it.

Simon Says: Take social numbers with a 50-lb. bag of salt

No one is saying to ignore numbers from Twitter, Klout, and the like. Foolish is the person, however, who takes these at face value. Organizations aren't the only ones who ignore data quality. Many individuals suffer from the same affliction.

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About Author

Phil Simon

Author, Speaker, and Professor

Phil Simon is a keynote speaker and recognized technology expert. He is the award-winning author of eight management books, most recently Analytics: The Agile Way. He consults organizations on matters related to strategy, data, analytics, and technology. His contributions have appeared in The Harvard Business Review, CNN, Wired, The New York Times, and many other sites. He teaches information systems and analytics at Arizona State University's W. P. Carey School of Business (Department of Information Systems). He also runs 5marbles, an Agile software-development shop.

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