Social Media and the Hegemony of The Big Number

by admin

One of the great advantages conferred by the online environment is the ability to analyze your user base to the point of stalking. Frankly, with the depth web analytics offer, I’m a little surprised Nielson’s ham-fisted sampling techniques still pass as respected data by comparison.

At the same time, the absolute specificity of web analytics is something of an Achilles’ Heel. Granular data demands a close, thoughtful inspection, and that can be awfully intimidating to those with little appreciation of how people use the Internet. Compounding the problem, bottom-line relationships between sites and advertisers encourage something of tin ear for the nuances of how users move through your site. 

The result has been a tyrannical Hegemony of The Big Number—the immovable focus on the importance of one, large, easy-to-understand number. It’s gained tremendous traction, even among operations who ought to know better. And while at the absolute high end, traffic is relatively resistant to flim-flam, for mid- and small-sized operations, a traffic bump is just a PayPal account away. 

While the illusion of a Twitter following can be similarly fabricated, the subterfuge is significantly more transparent. Rather than being buried in the back corner of an IT report (you seem to get a lot of traffic from China around 3am) or under layers of Alexa queries (you don’t chart in the US but are Top 500 in Malaysia), the relevance of your content is right there, in the live stream.

It doesn’t take tremendous technical aptitude to see that Twitter accounts like pxn_dx96 aren’t doing a whole lot for your brand. In fact, thanks to years of unsolicited inbox bombardments, spam detection (credit scores, debt consolidation, weight loss, male enhancement, etc.) may be the closest thing the US workforce has to a universal skill.

So while the unscrupulous may still try to juke the stats (bonuses exceed the cost of purchasing followers with alarming regularity), in this case, the illusion is transparent to almost anyone with a set of eyeballs. A retweet sandwiched between online poker ads is at best a non-factor, and is far more likely eroding the value of the content you want people to see.

Social media work takes some well-deserved heat for being a wishy-washy pseudo-skill. But it also lays plain an objective point that communications managers have overlooked for years: numbers are a faceless indicator. Each IP address pinging your server is as likely to be a zombie PC as a live user.

With a little luck, the human-readable spin Twitter puts on fealty to The Big Number will return the focus of web analytics to where it actually belongs—determining visitor behavior, and using that data to improve engagement and the user experience.