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Don’t get crunched by digital data claims

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics, said Mark Twain, who may or may not have borrowed the saying from the 19th century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli.

The same may be said of some of the marketing claims, “facts” and figures floating around the Internet regarding the power of digital data and social media platforms.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about from my “You shouldn’t believe everything you read on the Internet” file: Two days before Super Bowl XLVIII (a curious throwback to a non-digital era), Advertising Age ran an article about how Varick Media Management, a “data-driven media buying agency,” used Big Data to confidently predict that Denver would win the contest.

In “These Ad-Tech Geniuses Used Big Data to Pick the Super Bowl Winner,” Varick based its prediction on its algorithms, which had a 69 percent accuracy rate during the 2013 season.

One of the first things I learned in Economics 101 was that there is a direct correlation between the size of your sample and the strength of your conclusion. Apparently, a year’s worth of data was not enough. The garbage in, garbage out maxim must also apply to the predictive powers of Big Data.

Although Varick’s statistics fell short, let’s hope USA Today’s report the day before the Super Bowl will be more accurate. According to the “Super Bowl Predictor Theory,” stocks will have a positive year if the team from the National Football Conference wins. The “theory” has reportedly been correct in 37 of the past 47 years, according to Howard Silverblatt of S&P Capital IQ.

Like many Super Bowl viewers, I was looking forward to watching what on paper and in my gut looked to be a great matchup. I didn’t have a dog in the fight and didn’t much care who won. That said, I found myself rooting for the NFC’s Seattle Seahawks after a few minutes in the hope that the “Super Bowl Predictor Theory” panned out and I would at least be able to console myself with an uptick in the stock market, come Monday morning.

But once again my hopes were dashed as the market plummeted a sickening 326 points the day after the big game. Truth is, I’m beginning to lose my faith in the power of data to help guide my personal and professional life.

For that matter, I’m also beginning to question the viability of a number of platforms, including Facebook, one of the pillars of the social media Holy Grail. Doubt began taking hold about three years ago when my then 14-year-old daughter, Sara, told me that she and many of her friends were abandoning Facebook and moving over to Twitter. I mentioned this to a social media guru I know, who pooh-poohed the very thought.

Notwithstanding his brush-off, just two weeks before Facebook turned 10 years old in early February, two Princeton University professors issued a report that said Facebook could lose as many as 80 percent of its users by 2017.

They based their startling assertion on the theory that social media has many features similar to that of an epidemic. The profs used an epidemiological model of the dearly departed MySpace social media platform to draw their conclusions, according to this article in Technorati (

Given this dire outlook for Facebook, I sold the shares I bought at $30 and have since watched it rise to the mid- $60s. So much for the power of inside and online information, as well as Princeton University professors.

On a more useful note, The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article that could be of interest to marine marketers who want to reach a more diverse demographic. According to the deceptively titled article, “Twitter Users’ Diversity Becomes An Ad Selling Point,” Instagram and Twitter are far more likely to be used by non-whites than Facebook or LinkedIn.

The article points out that although 66 percent of the Facebook and LinkedIn user base is white, 53 percent of Instagram users and 41 percent of Twitter users are non-white. For a full breakdown of these data, see my LinkedIn posting of this article at the Marine Marketers of America’s LinkedIn site.

Another article worthy of note that recently came across my screen, compliments of Belle Cooper at FastCompany, is “10 Surprising Social Media Statistics That Will Make You Rethink Your Social Strategy.” Not all 10 are particularly compelling, but here are some of the more interesting highlights. They demonstrate, among other things, that social media is not just for teenagers, that no one platform is best for all demographics and that the way your content displays on mobile devices is very important:

• The 45-54 age bracket is the fastest-growing demographic on Facebook and Google+. On Twitter, it’s the 55-64 age bracket.

• 189 million Facebook users are “mobile only.”

• YouTube reaches more American adults aged 18-34 than any cable network.

• Social media has overtaken porn as the No. 1 activity on the Web.

• 93 percent of marketers use social media for business.

My takeaway from all of these crosscurrents is that the digital age has, above all things, been disruptive for marine marketers. What used to work in the past doesn’t quite work as well anymore, and what they say will work doesn’t always pan out.

At this stage in the evolution of all things digital I remain unconvinced that social media are generating much new real business and customers for the boating industry. Although the social media giants of the Internet world, including Google, Facebook, Twitter and others, are certainly generating “traffic,” they’re also minting millions for themselves and their shareholders. I’m still waiting for someone in the marine community to demonstrate a social media strategy that they’ve been able to monetize on a consistent basis in which the bottom-line return on the investment has significantly exceeded its cost.

Rather than generate new revenue streams, social media platforms may simply represent a reshuffling of the deck chairs on the Titanic in which ad dollars that previously went largely to print are now being spread across a variety of new platforms.

Prove me wrong with a verifiable account of how social media has powered your business into the black, and we’ll tell the world about your success. You can contact me at

For the time being, my advice is this: Don’t believe everything you read, especially when it comes to digital technology and social media. Beware the hype and mumbo-jumbo, take what they say with a grain of salt and use multiple platforms. Conversely, don’t just trust your gut. Instead, surround yourself with talented people from various generations, especially those who know more than you do.

Michael Sciulla is president of Credibility & Company Communications, as well as vice president of the Marine Marketers of America and a member of the board of directors of both Boating Writers International and the Marine Marketers of America. During a 28-year career at BoatUS he built the association’s brand as membership grew from 30,000 to 650,000.

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue.



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