Sorry statisticians, but marketing is your job too

Christine gave a keynote talk at international conference New Techniques and Technologies for Statistics

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As the keynote speaker before lunch, Christine was aware that she was in an extraordinary position of power.  

Here are the notes and sources she referenced in her talk: Sorry, but marketing is your job too

Watch the keynote address.

There is so much information on the web that publishing the content and assuming everybody saw it, is not enough. You need to do more.

40% of the world's population is online

That’s around 3.5 billion people. Online. Looking at information. Completing tasks. Paying bills. Chatting to friends. Finding information. 

To clarify. There’s another 60% of the world’s population who are yet to get online. So you think it’s busy and confusing now? You just wait! 

There are at least 4.5 billion web pages

And that’s just on the part of the web that’s indexed.

How many times do you even look on the second page of Google results? Maybe 7 out of the 500 people in the room put their hands up to answer this question. Most would rather type a whole new question into the search box... and they do. 

The first result in Google will get around 35% of the clicks. The next two positions will get around 20% and 10%. 

As for the rest of page one and the subsequent pages of results… I don’t know if you’ve heard the phrase: 

“The best place to hide a dead body is the second page of Google search results…” 

In 2010, the Microsoft Research group did an analysis of page visit durations for over 200,000 different web pages and around 10,000 visits. This chart is the outcome. You'll see time along the bottom and on the side is the probability that the user will leave the page.

How likely a user is to leave a webpage

How likely a user is to leave a webpage

It shows that the first 10 seconds of the page visit are critical for users' decision to stay or leave. To get several minutes of user attention, you must clearly communicate your value proposition - or what the content is about - within 10 seconds. Your writing needs to be extremely clear and focused. 

We can also see that users read in an F-shaped pattern when they look online, missing out much of the content. 

F-shape reading pattern

The F-shape reading pattern of online readers

53% of the world uses a mobile device to get online

Think about the size of your phone and the complicated format of statistics - whether they’re in tables, spreadsheets or PDFs. And now think about what it’s like to look at those on a mobile. Incidentally - did you know that search engines - and often screen readers - aren’t able to read the contents of PDFs? You’re effectively hiding the information from the world, when you publish in that format.

If you want your information to be found, and understood, you’re going to have to market it in the way that the world is now used to. You need to help people find the content through all of the other stuff out there. Because if you don’t, somebody else will. 

Why this is important

Existential pause goes here. 

Because of the filter bubble

A filter bubble happens when website algorithms work out what information a user would like to see based on signals - that’s things like location, past click behaviour and search history. There are up to 57 of these signals. The algorithm will then serve up personalised results. What happens next is that users become separated - or get further away - from information that disagrees with their viewpoint. Basically, it isolates them in their own cultural or ideological bubble. As well as the fact that these algorithms make these choices in the first place - the way they make those choices is not even transparent. 

So if you want to reach people who you haven’t reached before, you’re going to have to change the way you present your stuff, otherwise they’ll pretty much never see it. 

Because people are lazy

This sounds a bit cruel, but it's not meant in a nasty way. We as humans are programmed to take short cuts. We skim read when we’re online and don’t read full sentences. We look for the bit that will answer our question as quickly as possible and ignore the rest. How much of a web page do you really read? You definitely don’t look at the adverts. In fact, research shows that people typically only read around 20% of the text on a page. And that’s if they’re interested. And we’ve already seen the dead bodies on page two of the Google results. 

You can’t rely on people to do the hard work to find information because they won’t.

Because reading online is actually really hard

When you scroll you lose your place. And it's harder to retain the information you've read digitally because of this. When you read from a screen you blink less often, and this tires your eyes out. When you read from a digital device, you're using something that was pretty much tailor made to distract you - not help you read. 

Because you want to be in on the conversation 

You’ve spent all this time working on the stats - so you want to be in on the conversation around them. Don’t let some other organisation do that. And risk doing it wrong. 

Because statistics tell us stories

There are countless examples about how statistics have told incredible stories. But if we’re not careful, it can go wrong.

In the UK, statistics on the number of deaths associated with air pollution in the UK were published. There was a claim that air pollution in the UK contributes to the shortening of the lives of around 40,000 people a year. 

Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation at UK Statistics Authority, wrote to Ken Roy, Head of Profession for Statistics at Defra group - it’s all getting a bit dramatic now - and said: 

“Currently, it is unclear how you arrived at the upper and lower ranges for the combined estimate of mortality (44,750-52,500). Adding this information would aid understanding and interpretation of the figures.”

But look at what happened in one area in London - residents got together to put up air pollution measurement tubes. Are these people doing the right thing? They’re certainly motivated to do something - which is great - but are they well-informed?

Was the claim true? The BBC published a ‘reality check’ article

They said the figure was a statistical construct, not a count of actual deaths. Confusing, especially if you don’t work with stats every day. Imagine if people were able to find, analyse and understand the complexities of these things for themselves. 

We need people to be able to find and understand statistics so they can make informed decisions. This is more important now than ever. 

Make the data searchable

Hans Rosling, who passed away recently, talked about the importance of sharing information. 

In his TED talk ‘The best stats you’ve ever seen’, from 2006, he draws a diagram of the data buried deep in the earth. Covered by a layer of ‘the internet’, paywalls and passwords. Right at the top is the sun - which represents the public. In order to liberate - as he says - the data, it needs to be searchable.

In the talk he says: “Some countries accept that their databases can go out in the world, but what we really need is, of course, a search function. A search function where we can copy the data up to a searchable format and get it out in the world. And what do we hear when we go around? 

Everyone says, "It's impossible. This can't be done. Our information is so peculiar in detail, so it cannot be searched as others can be searched. We cannot give the data free to the students, free to the entrepreneurs of the world."

And then he says this: “But this is what we would like to see, isn't it? The publicly-funded data is down here. And we would like flowers to grow out on the net. And one of the crucial points is to make them searchable."

Hans Rosling

Hans Rosling

What we're saying here isn’t new - Hans was saying it in 2006.

But it’s more important now than ever. We now have better search engines than ever, so it’s up to us to help them find the stuff.

Five ways you can improve the way you market your content

1. Write meaningful titles

It helps the information get found. Don’t just use the official name of the statistics. That will be included in the content anyway, so repeating it in the title won’t add value.
Tell people what the stats are about, add some analysis or conclusion. 

Use everyday words. The ones that people use - remember - the web works by people searching using key words - so in order to get found, you need to match your words with theirs. There are tools that can help you do this - like Google Trends or Google Adwords

2. Use plain language 

Write the analysis in plain English to help people understand it.

In 2012 Professor Trudeau, a legal professor in the States, wrote a paper where he showed the results of his research on people’s preferences for plain language. Staggeringly, he found that people with both lower and higher levels of literacy and expertise preferred it when things were written in plain language.

At the end of 2016 I joined up with Professor Trudeau to re-run the study. This time we went international and we had three times the number of respondents than the first study. The preliminary results back up what the first study showed - that people prefer plain language. 

The reason? People with higher levels of literacy and expertise typically have more to read in a day, and plain language means they can get through it more quickly.

3. Focus on making it findable

If you don’t do this, then other organisations will. You might think this doesn’t matter, but it does.

When people find your information first and they can understand it, it builds trust. Trust is the one thing that has been declining across the board in recent years. The 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer makes for grim reading:

“For the first time in 17 years, people’s trust declined in every kind of institution we asked about”...  the “largest-ever drop in trust across institutions of government, business, media and NGOs”.

Want to make people trust you and your information? Then focus on make your content findable - it shows you care about your users and the quality of your stats and analysis. It also means you can be involved in the conversation, rather than being left out. People are coming to you, not using someone else’s interpretation. 

4. Collect feedback

This point is criminally ignored by almost every organisation. Please - don’t feel bad - but do something about it. 

Collect information on how your content is accessed - use the website analytics to help you do this. Look at several metrics together - so not just how many visits to the content, but how long people spent, what’s the scroll depth that they went to and even what page did they go to afterwards? There’s a whole heap of data waiting for you there. Although remember, analytics will tell you what happened but not why.

For that, you will need to talk to your users. Ask what they use the info for? What do they do with it - do they further interpret and analyse it? Mash it with other data? Create infographics or reports? What can you learn about the next step of the process? All this feedback is useful to you, as the person in charge of the first part of the statistics’ life.

5. Learn about user behaviour
How we read online, what devices we use, how we search, all of that kind of stuff has an impact on how we - as the people at the start of the process - should be presenting that information. That’s not to say you will change how you prepare the stats or the analysis - but the way you publish it to the web may have to change. 

There are some brilliant places to start this learning - for example the Nielsen Norman Group - whose research I have mentioned in this talk - do things like eyetracking studies where they look at where users look on a webpage. It really is fascinating stuff. 

So in conclusion. The web is big. But it’s not scary, you may need to tweak your content so it’s able to be found and then understood. 

See the slides for 'Sorry, but marketing is your job too'.

Watch the keynote address by Christine Cawthorne.

Read the tweets from the session here

Main image credit Maria Jesus Vinuesa‏, @mjva61.