That’s Numberwang!

Twitter announced last month that it had reached its ten billionth tweet.  That, dear readers, is Numberwang.  The news provoked the esteemed Claire Beale to comment that Twitter had therefore become a ‘mass medium’.  

Brand Republic recently ran the following story:  ‘A cinema ad for South African Tourism delivered an estimated 451,289 impacts last weekend, according to figures from cinema sales house Digital Cinema Media’; this was shortly followed by another story about cinema delivering ‘at least one million impacts over the weekend’ for a new ad from Puma. More classic cases of Numberwanging.

We’re no better at Thinkbox; we can Numberwang with the best.  We have taken to telling people that 2.5 billion TV ads are seen every day in the UK, at normal speed.  In our monthly reports we now have a page where we list the brands with the most ‘views’ in the month (fyi in February it was Morrisons with 695 million TV ‘views’).

All of those numbers are accurate – but what do they mean?  

Rather than bandy about 2.5 billion TV ads a day, it’s infinitely more helpful to tell people that the average person sees 43 each day. Rather than the baffling number of 695 million impacts, it would be more meaningful to say that 87% of the UK had seen the Morrisons’ ad an average of 14 times in February.   Or that 0.8% of the UK population saw the South African Tourism cinema ad once each that weekend (i.e. like buying one spot in a repeat of Rising Damp on ITV3).  

When Mitchell and Webb first created their brilliant Numberwang sketch, about a gameshow based on utterly meaningless and absurdly random numbers, it’s tempting to think they had the media industry in mind.  On the surface, it looks like there may be some method to the maths; but it is in fact just plain madness. Numberwanging is the (ab)use of statistics to impress and divert people, but ultimately to obfuscate rather than enlighten.

This obsession with quoting the highest number possible is rooted in the web’s supreme ‘countability’, its transparency and its global footprint.  It’s easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy for journalists to quote the latest number of views of TV ads from YouTube.  But were those 10 million views of the Cadbury’s Gorilla from 10 million different people or 1 million people watching it 10 times each?  Were they all from the UK or supplemented by views from Peru and Korea?  YouTube syndrome has even led to ad agencies dismissing the hundreds of million views in their TV campaign as ’just a few TV spots’ thereby confusing cause and effect.

I hope you can forgive us offline media, often with restricted local and national footprints, for amassing the most impressive numbers we can muster as a response to the fashion for online Numberwanging.  

The internet can turn up some very big numbers but has a relative paucity of metrics that equate to crucial media concepts like reach and frequency – metrics that enable us to compare the significance of a local medium with a global one.  UKOM will fill some of those gaps and I genuinely can’t wait.

But back to Twitter.  Is it a ‘mass medium’ yet?  Maybe, but the 10 billionth tweet stat doesn’t help me answer you; I reckon at least a third of them have been written by @adlandsuit for a start.   

A decade ago the very wise Ken New, when discussing the burgeoning medium of commercial radio, said that he thought it couldn’t be called a mass medium until about 70% of the population used it every week.  Let’s be less demanding and say 50% reach each week; I think Twitter is some way off that anywhere in the world.  The IAB website says that 17% of the global online audience uses Twitter.  But in the UK it’s over half-way to cracking 50% penetration with 42% of the 65% adult UK online population signed up to Twitter – i.e. 27.3% of the total population.  Can’t help you on the frequency of use though, sadly.

But not a single one of all the many numbers quoted so far in this blog is going to help you decide how to spend your marketing money, the sort of numbers you can only get from rigorous econometrics and proper effectiveness research.  If you fancy some of those, have a look here.

I wish I could promise that we at Thinkbox, from this moment on, will eschew all temptation to impress you with the biggest legitimate TV numbers that exist. We will if other media will.  But will they?  Unlikely, I suspect.  We shall all just have to continue to be a bunch of Numberwangers.

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