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

Posted by Doug Garnett June - 13 - 2011 - Monday

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


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Doug Garnett, DRTV and Technology Industry Expert

Doug Garnett is founder and CEO of DRTV agency Atomic Direct and a leading expert on innovative uses of DRTV, infomercials and other in-depth TV and non-TV messages to build brand and drive sales.

Doug has been working in and around the technology field for 27 years. After starting in aerospace, he spent 5 years selling and marketing supercomputers. Since shifting to advertising, his clients have included AT&T, IBM, Apple, Disney Mobile, Ugobe, Presto, and Netpliance.

Doug sits on the editorial board of Response Magazine, is an adjunct professor of general advertising at Portland State University, and is a member of the Jordan-Whitney Greensheet Panel.

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