Avoid the Pitfalls of Online Research for Stats and Surveys

With just a few keystrokes and clicks in Google, a world of research, statistics, and studies are available to bolster white papers, bylined articles, and blog posts. Unfortunately, the explosion of online content has made sourcing this research a needle-in-the-haystack exercise. Unless the stat you want to use is in a news article from a major media outlet (with high standards for fact-checking), you may have no other source to cite but another online article, which won’t have a definitive source either.

Here’s how this plays out. You go to Google to search for data on, say, return rates for online retail merchandise. On the first page of search results, you see some helpful infographics on ecommerce from some websites you’ve never come across before, with names like “BusinessEcommerceInsider.com,” that sound vaguely like you should trust them. (FYI, I made up that website name, but no doubt someone will appropriate it soon.) If the stats even have links to draw you back to sources, they’re probably someone else’s blog posts, or slide deck, or a years-old study from an obscure analyst firm.

Why is this a problem? I mean, you could simply include a link to the infographic at BusinessEcommerceInsider.com and be done with your sourcing. But that is a bad idea. You’d run the risk of picking up faulty data, which won’t reflect well on your brand—especially if someone questions the numbers. I’ve noticed that as a data point gets played from blog to infographic and back again, the data get twisted around—or worse, the numbers are simply wrong.

Resist the urge to run with the weak sourcing. This means doing more work and digging—or, if you’re working with the Content Bureau, we’ll do the detective work for you. But if you’re on your own and searching for some third-party credibility, here’s how to track down reliable sources:

  • Stick to recent stats: If the research you’re pursuing is more than four years old, there’s a good chance it’s no longer valid, or has been superseded by new data. Things change fast, especially if your projects involve technology or online commerce. Avoid the temptation to cite old data. Go to the website for the researcher or organization to see if they’ve conducted a newer study.
  • Defer to trusted media organizations or industry and professional publications: In an era of daily accusations of “fake news,” the definition of “trusted” media and professional organizations has taken a beating. But, politics aside, we know that high-profile newspapers, magazines, and online news outlets, as well as trade journals, generally require writers to fact-check source material and cite sources in footnotes or links.
  • Seek out press releases that announce research findings: If your stats or survey come from a decent-sized organization, it probably posted a press release about the findings. A press release can provide useful links back to the original study or survey, details on methodology, and information about which organizations participated, such as paid sponsors. It’s not necessarily bad if a brand commissioned the survey or study, but you should name the sponsors in your written piece or footnote it—plus, if the sponsor is one of your competitors, you might decide to skip that stat.

When you’re hunting for good stats, it boils down to this: You need to be able to say definitely which organization ran the study or survey, when it was published, and how exactly the finding was described. If you can answer these questions confidently, you’re safe to cite it.

When you take the time to create trust in the data that you cite, you position your brand as a trusted resource. Check out the Content Bureau’s recent post on earning trust through activities such as content marketing—it offers many insights on why commitment to trust elevates brand reputation.


By Chris Kent