Negative Data: The Blame Game

The early holiday shopping season results are in, and consumers are apparently shopping online in record numbers. According to Nielsen//NetRatings, traffic to online retailers surged the Friday after Thanksgiving (Nov. 28) compared to the previous Friday. A few retailing categories showed astounding growth:

  • Consumer electronics Web sites saw 187 percent growth in unique visitors.

  • Home and garden Web sites saw 105 percent growth in unique visitors.
  • Apparel Web sites saw 90 percent growth in unique visitors.

Although most Internet retailers are happy to bask in the green glow of cash in their coffers, some aren’t ready to declare the early shopping season a success.

“‘Those who believe the data showing increases in Web traffic must believe the earth is flat,” said a customer data analyst at a trendy Fifth Avenue retailer. That analyst is reporting an 85 percent increase in online traffic during the Thanksgiving weekend.

“Sure, I’d love to tell you that our marketing efforts are bringing boatloads of customers to our site. The truth is the traffic reports are very complicated and obscure,” she continued.

“I’m confident there is a problem with the method being used to collect the data. We need more time to study the data. I’m sure once we get to the bottom of it, we’ll find that our traffic is flat, or even a bit negative.”

Confused? Who looks success in the face and accuses the numbers of being skewed? I made up the above quotes to drive home a point: When the data by which we all measure our performance show positive results, we’re quick to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. Who would question the validity of data that shows unbridled success? The numbers never lie when the results are positive.

However, when the data doesn’t show the level of success everyone expects, the numbers become the target of a witch hunt. Sales are down 10 percent? Perhaps there was a glitch in the data collection system. Usage rates declined? Maybe a change in the methodology is to blame. Viewership among males ages 18 to 34 is dropping? There must be a problem with the sample data.

You’ve probably read about the uproar surrounding the viewership declines broadcast television networks are seeing in males 18 to 34. The research chiefs at the broadcast networks are responding exactly as you would expect, howling that the Nielsen statistics by which they live and die must be incorrect. Their strategy is to protect their brethren, the programming chiefs, by blaming it on the data.

In response to the criticism, Nielsen exhaustively explored its internal data collection methods and determined the data was accurate. Released just before Thanksgiving, the report comes to a simple conclusion, “Men 18-34 are watching substantially less primetime television this year as compared to last.”

Of course, the broadcast networks are some of Nielsen’s most valuable customers, so the report also contained a kid-glove response to the broadcast network’s complaints: “We will continue to work closely with our clients who are sharing analytical suggestions and insights, and we, in turn, will share what we learn with the industry over the coming weeks.”

The research heads at the broadcast television networks continued to cry foul, taking pot-shots at Nielsen and successfully spinning the conversation from why their programming is so bad to why the data is so wrong. What’s funny is the Nielsen data shows cable television networks are experiencing an increase in viewership among males.

The New York Times reported last week “the decline in male viewers 18 to 34 was not found by Nielsen among viewers of so-called basic cable networks, channels like FX, MTV, Spike TV and USA that run commercials.” You sure don’t hear any of the research heads for those networks complaining to Nielsen.

Advertising agencies holding the purse strings on millions of dollars of corporate marketing budgets seem to resist buying into the spin research chiefs are trying to put on the situation.

Brad Adgate, senior VP and research director at Horizon Media, told the NYT, “Some of the new technologies have hit critical mass.” He was referencing Nielsen’s assertion males 18 to 34 were spending more time watching DVDs, playing video games, and surfing the Internet.

If advertising agencies realize the opportunity the Internet offers to reach those males who’ve turned off the TV, that’s good news for the Internet advertising community.

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