October 29, 2009...4:55 pm

The Trouble with Blog Influence Statistics

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It may be ironic, but I’m not a big fan of statistics when it comes to blog readership.  Not because I’m not interested, but because I’m not convinced the average person understands exactly what a blog is. Even many of us who think we DO understand what a blog is have a hard time agreeing with one another on definitions.

Case in point: Seth Godin. He disabled comments on his blog long ago, yet some say comments make a blog. On the other hand, The Chicago Tribune has comments on their articles. Is The Chicago Tribune a blog? Others still refer to forums or message boards as blogs. Do they qualify?

A recent study by Mediamark Research & Intelligence (pdf) found that 10.1 percent of U.S. adults reported to having read a blog in the last 30 days.

And, if you think that number’s small, only 3.4 percent of adults actually wrote a blog post in the same period. There goes the theory that blogging democratizes the web. It seems there’s still an equation of the few influencing the many, but just who comprises the few has shifted a bit. If you’re curious, I heard about the study from a Marketing Charts email newsletter. Good stuff here.

I tend to think the number of people reading blogs is actually much higher. However,  I’m prone to believe the statistic on the percentage of bloggers is right on. Why, you ask? Because I’m willing to accept that someone who’s blogging probably knows they’re blogging.

The irony for me is even though the reported number of blog readers seems relatively small, the press release for this study notes blogs relatively sizable impact on consumers:

“This is the latest evidence of the impact a small group of people can have on society at large,” said Anne Marie Kelly, SVP, Marketing & Strategic Planning, at MRI.“The influence of blogs on mainstream media reporting has long been clear and now the government is taking steps to ensure consumers know the motivation behind blog product endorsements and recommendations. Yet, relatively speaking, very few consumers read or write blogs.”

Wait… I’m confused.

If you missed that part in the middle, read it again: “The influence of blogs on mainstream media reporting has long been clear…” Really? So many people working in social media struggle to make this case, why is it such a given for the FTC and the organization behind this study?

If the numbers are so small, why do blogs have such an undeniable impact to those conducting the study? Especially if we consider that the same 3.4 percent who write blogs probably  make up the 10.1 percent who read them.

Math isn’t my forte, but if I examine the numbers, this means that 3.4 percent of the population are very influential over a remaining 6.7 percent. So one third of a very small segment of the population is very influential over another relatively small segment of the population not even twice its size. Big deal! Yet, this press release from the study announces the “broad” impact of bloggers.

For the record, I believe the impact of blogs goes way beyond what this study indicates for a few reasons I’ve written about before, but I would really like to hear from you.

Am I missing something here? What do you make of these numbers?

And, perhaps more importantly, how can we ask better questions to understand the true impact of blogs on culture as well as consumer behavior?

How should we really measure influence?

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  • I think the first point you make about what defines a blog partly explains the small numbers. The average web surfer may not even realize they’re reading blog, so the numbers are probably sketchy. Nonetheless, the strong influence of blogs despite such small numbers seems to be precisely the reason the government and consumer advocates want to get involved in the first place: consumers often don’t realize they’re reading a sponsored post or “advertorial” content. Blogs can have disproportionately high influence if the reader doesn’t understand the blogger’s motivation.

    • Jim,

      I think you’re exactly right – the problem with surveys is that they rely on semantics. The average consumer doesn’t understand a blog vs. a news site, vs. a web site, etc. Content is content. I agree that blogs are very influential and I don’t think the government is wrong to require disclosure – I just have a general fear of the government trying to regulate the Internet. Laws have a way of becoming really convoluted over time and they often stray away from what they were intended to do in the first place – in this case, protect consumers… case in point – copyright law was originally intended to encourage creativity… I don’t think it does that anymore although others might disagree.

      Thanks for the comment, Jim – I look forward to seeing more of the great work you’re doing!

  • This is something I see on a regular basis and I’m glad you posted about it. We ran some internal polling and found that the majority of visitors on our clients’ blogs didn’t even know they were reading a blog – let alone know what a blog is.

    Some people called the blogs “forums,” others journals, others news updates; in the mainstream (outside the tech community), it doesn’t matter what you call it as long as it’s interesting to them.

    • Hey Jeremiah!

      I think we may have even talked about this in the past… The poll you ran with your customers sounds interesting. I think this is a huge point that really impacts the quality of the data around social media. Pulling out an interesting percentage and calling it a “broad impact” isn’t really helpful in most cases… it seems you agree. :)

  • Actually, Shannon…I think you’re saying out loud the thing that nobody wants to hear. The Emperor might not be wearing any clothes.

    I will predict that 1-2 years from now, this will be THE hot topic of conversation.

    For the past 1-2 years, the predominant voices in the social media industry has been saying “You HAVE to have a blog.” “You MUST be on Twitter.” “You MUST be on Facebook”. “You MUST build an online community.” “You MUST establish personal relationships with your customers.”

    The loudest voices are the ones insisting on universal adoption of social media to connect, and that connection is invaluable. And everyone is doing it, so you should too.

    I predict that it will be another year or two before those folks who DO adopt discover how much time and effort it takes to successfully engage, and many more will attempt to engage and be unsuccessful before the question will turn around…

    …is this all really worth the effort.

    For the early adopters, yes, it’s worth the effort. They have become influential because of their early adoption.

    For latecomers, the effort it takes to be found and cut thru the noise probably WON’T be worth the effort.

    Challenging the value of blogs is the first step…they are sort of the first social media tool adopted after discussion boards. So now that folks have been using them for awhile…it’s the right time to start asking…”is the return really worth the bother?”

    As usual…you are ahead of your time, Shannon. :-)

    • Thanks, Mark!

      I really do think blogs will continue to impact consumers and a wide variety of other media, I just don’t think this data indicates that fact. :)

  • It seems to me that it depends on what your definition of a blog is (originally web log). To many consumers, they may regularly read blogs, but not be aware of it. And should we consider twitter, tumblr, Facebook – just about anywhere that someone can post content – a blog?

    I think what the FCC is concerned about is the amount of influence that certain individuals seem to have with their audience. Why this is different from (or even matches) the influence from other types of media, I don’t know. But I’d say that, in general, influence is moving away from main stream media and corporations and into the hands of many individuals – but I think the influence gets diffused since it’s spread out. Maybe the concern is just fear from the change in power – it’s much easier now for anyone to tell a larger audience what they think.

    Thanks for your thoughts, Shannon. I think we’re all still struggling with how you actually measure any type of influence online (although there are some metrics such as shares, comments, etc).

    • Thanks, Sarah,

      That was exactly my point – most definitions of what constitutes a “blog” vary greatly and I think it should be part of any study or survey to include such definitions so respondents and analysts are clear on what they’re actually measuring.

      I think the impact of blogging is great – but I don’t think this study shows it. I think we’re all hungry for data that shows the true impact of social media, but putting a quote in a press release touting a “broad impact” when the numbers aren’t there to support it doesn’t do anyone any favors. Make sense?

  • I think your analysis is spot on and love how you exposed the semi-shallow thinking. Kudos on one of your strongest pieces, imho.

    Not only do a lot of people not even realize what a blog is, but I think the influence of blogs is understated and will, ultimately, be a huge factor that will extend beyond the percentages you outlined.

    While I can’t stand those who comment spam with a random link, hopefully this one will fit the bill, since I argue that Bloggers will rule the earth because it is you and I who actually create the content that gets shared/RT’d/picked up by mainstream media.

    Anyway, just wanted to chime in and say well done!

    • Jeremy,

      Thanks so much for responding :)

      I agree that the impact of blogs is much greater than the number found in this survey. Hopefully companies looking to provide this data will see the need to define parameters in a way respodants will understand. I am at the point of craving good data to support my intuition – but this study just doesn’t cut it.

      I’ll forgive you for linkbaiting and check out your post – but only because I like you :)

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  • Maybe, just maybe the influence that MRI and the FTC are referring to is The Power of One; because sometimes, that’s all it takes.

    While the numbers point to a very small percentage of the total population reading blogs, it’s really tough to measure the influence of those readers and the domino effect reading one little blog might have…outside the blogosphere.

    I recently commented on a teeny-tiny blog post by the CEO of UP Media in response to a PR oriented feature piece in one of his magazines.

    My comments were read by about 150 people worldwide; people who don’t typically read blogs, but were prompted by colleagues to do so because of the disruptive nature of my remarks. As a result, any positive PR value that might have been achieved by the cover story has been gutted by my insider’s counterpoint, and the CEO of the #2 EMS provider in the word, a $36B company, is being forced to revisit some key strategic planning.

    If you’re trying to use blogs to reach the masses, I agree, the greatest benefit still lies ahead, but if you have what it takes to influence the RIGHT people, the power to be influential is there right now.


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