90% of statistics can be made to say anything 50% of the time*

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A couple of days ago, the the New York Times reported on findings from the new Veronis Suhler Stevenson Communications Industry Forecast that projects media expenditures from 2009-2013. From that NYT story, a game of “telephone” has rippled forth across the land that has boiled down an exhaustive report that is hundreds of pages long into a sound bite that is a variation of the headline Gawker put on its snipped version: “Consumers Know: ‘Free’ Media Must Suck”.

The VSS annual research report has been around for 30 years and is far more accurate and insightful than research coming from other sources, so my rant is not directed at them. Nonetheless, every year there seems to be one misinterpreted statistic that within 24 hours shows up in every marketing guy’s e-mail, tweet and blog-post to everyone they know.

Typically, the misinterpretation is the classic one I’ve been writing about since 2004 in which “magazine advertising” is compared to “internet advertising.” However, the “magazine advertising” figure that is used refers to “advertising in consumer magazines” and leaves out 50% of the magazine advertising that appears in business-to-business magazines. As I pointed out last year, the “internet advertising” statistic includes all search, display, sponsorships, etc., spent online in both consumer and b-to-b marketing.

Without a doubt, there is a trend from print to digital media, both in the way we access, process, organize and use information and other forms of content. And yes, lots of this is “paid” and not supported by advertising — we just don’t think about it that way. And frankly, as the business I’m in has a fee-based marketing services business model that creates exactly the type of alternative media that VSS predicts is one of the fast-growing segments of media, intuitively, I should be rah-rahing the misperception that’s floating around out there.

However, it’s impossible for me not to react negatively to headline take-aways based on misinterpretations of a one-page press release that make it sound like a $30 billion market is going out of business in a few weeks.

*Quote from that clueless marketing guy on the DirecTV ads.

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  • Just wondering as a side note if you can render a verdict on how accurate the firm’s 2004 predictions ended up being 5 years later. Even the raw numbers were off, I wonder how close they came to predicting the current shares of different media outlets.

  • @Aaron – Good question. Later, I will hunt down the 2004 report in our library and see if I can do some quick calculations. The last time I took a cursory look at such a follow-up was that post from last year. VSS was alot closer than others — but still off by a double digit percentage on magazine advertising revenue. Another thing VSS is challenged with: the re-naming and reclassification of different types of media. For example, they used to have a unique category for custom publishing, but now lump that into some other category of marketing services. The challenge in doing a retrospective of their predictions is the same as an a securities analyst must face when combining the performance of a company that has acquired several companies over the period being analyzed.