This guest post is by Conor Powers-Smith of Factbrowser.com.
Blog posts, whitepapers and other shareable content rely on supporting data—not because people just love a good color-coded pie chart (though they are pretty), but because numbers give stories shape. They add scale. They provide perspective. They quantify that something meaningful is happening.
Think about it: which statement would you rather share?
- Teenagers are texting like crazy, more than ever.
- The average teen sends 60 texts per day, up from 50 in 2009 (Pew Research Center).
The second statement tells you that there’s a behavioral trend happening and that the trend has real implications for business, communications, and a number of other fields.
But you can’t just throw a bunch of stats into your content and expect instant gravitas. Finding and interpreting facts to support your argument takes thought, and they should add depth, not clutter, to your point. Here are the essentials you need to know to use data wisely and effectively.
Speed up your research
Finding the right data to support your content can take a lot of time. The good news is that there are a couple of free tools that can streamline the process and make sure you’re well-supplied with fresh research:
- Google Alerts: Set up an alert for keywords from your desired topic area plus words like “data” “study” or “report.” You’ll have to play around with the right keywords and phrases to get your alerts delivering exactly what you need, but it’s a good way to stay on top of new data as it rolls out.
- Factbrowser: Factbrowser, where I work, is a free research discovery engine that aggregates all of the latest research on business and technology, making it easier to find just the facts you need without having to wade through long reports. When you find a topic you’re interested in (like social media or mobile, for example), subscribe to the RSS feed for that topic to see highlights of the latest research.
Make sure your data is credible
There’s a reason Mark Twain’s “Lies, damn lies, and statistics” adage is so well known. It’s easy for facts to be misinterpreted, and tools like Twitter have only increased the speed at which facts travel. Often, this means stats travel without their original source or context.
How can you test whether data is well-founded? Check these elements of the fact you’re reviewing:
- Sample size: The very first thing you should do to determine whether a fact is well-founded is to look at the sample size represented in the study. The sample size that’s needed for the data to be reliable will vary based on the type of the study you’re looking at, but for most purposes you probably want to look for a sample size that’s over 400. In most cases, a sample size of more than 400 people will give a confidence level of about 95%.
- Source of the report: Government agencies and market research companies aren’t the only sources of data out there. Often, a specific company will make its own data available for public consumption. For example, email service providers often release studies about open-rate benchmarks and email trends. Understanding whether research is sponsored—and by whom—is key to interpreting its credibility. Just because a company is financially tied to the topic doesn’t mean the data isn’t good. In fact, it can be some of the most interesting data out there—especially if the source has a unique and proprietary way of generating the data in the report. But be wary of sponsored surveys that have a clear commercial agenda, though.
- Date: How recently was the study conducted? Sometimes a year can make a big difference. If the stat is outdated and no longer rings true, don’t use it.
- Gut check: Also known as the sniff test—if something seems off or exaggerated, research it. Make sure you have the context around it and see if you can find similar information to corroborate it.
Cite the data’s source properly
On the web, citing a source is a little different from the citations of your AP history papers—but it’s just as critical.
Content on the web tends to be easily transferrable, and short-form, so it’s easy for a fact to lose its citation. Try to make sure you chase your fact back to the original source, not just a blog or article that mentions it.
I suggest you name the source of the information, either in-line or in parentheses after the fact, and link back to the original report. The Mobiledemystified blog did a nice job with this on a recent post, but for more detailed tips see Georgina’s post on using links to cite external sources of information you’ve used on your blog.
Additionally, if a report is located behind a form on a landing page, it’s a good practice to link to the form page rather than linking directly to the PDF report.
It doesn’t take much to stay up to date with the latest research on your topic area—just an ongoing curiosity and a couple of good research sites.
Whether you’re tweeting out your perspective on a new stat or threading a series of data points throughout your posts, good research will always make your content sticker and more consequential.
Do you use data in your posts? How do you find, check, and cite that information? Share your tips with us in the comments.
Conor Powers-Smith is a content manager at Factbrowser.com, a research discovery engine for the latest facts, stats, reports, surveys, and studies on business, marketing and technology. In addition to his work at Factbrowser (RSS), Conor works as a freelance journalist in Massachusetts.