Blog posts, whitepapers and other shareable content rely on supporting data not because people love a good color-coded pie chart, but because numbers give stories shape. They add scale and provide perspective. They justify that something meaningful is happening.
Think about it. Which statement would you rather share?
- Teenagers are texting more than ever.
- The average teen sends 60 texts per day, up from 50 in 2009 (Pew Research Center).
The second statement tells you there's a behavioral trend that has real implications for business, communications, and a number of other fields.
But you can't just throw a bunch of statistics into your content and expect instant gravitas. It takes thought to find and interpret facts that support your argument. Facts should add depth—not clutter—to your point.
Here's what you need to know to use data wisely and effectively.
1. Speed up your research.
It can take a lot of time to find the right data to support your content. The good news is 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 exactly what you need, but it's a good way to stay on top of new data.
- Factbrowser: Factbrowser—where I work—is a free research discovery engine that aggregates all of the latest research on business and technology. It makes it easier to find 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), subscribe to that topic's RSS feed to see highlights of the latest research.
2. 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 to misinterpret facts, and tools like Twitter only increase the speed at which facts travel. Often, this means stats travel without their original sources or context.
How can you test whether data is well-founded? Check for these elements:
Sample size: The 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 you need for the data to be reliable will vary based on the study, but for most purposes you probably want to look for a sample size that's more than 400 people. In most cases, a sample size of more than 400 will give a confidence level of about 95 percent.
Source of the report: Government agencies and market research companies aren't the only data sources out there. Often, a specific company will make its data available for public consumption.
For example, email service providers often release studies about open-rate benchmarks and email trends. To determine the research's credibility, it is key to understand whether research is sponsored—and by whom.
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 finding the data in the report. But, be wary of sponsored surveys that have a clear commercial agenda.
Date: How recently did the study take place? Sometimes a year can make a big difference. If the statistic is outdated and no longer rings true, don't use it.
Gut check: This is also known as the sniff test. If something seems off or exaggerated, research it. Make sure you have context around it, and see if you can find similar information to corroborate it.
3. Cite the source properly.
Citing a source on the Web 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 easy to easily transferrable and short-form, so it's easy for a fact to lose its citation. Make sure you chase your fact back to the original source, not just a blog or article that mentions it.
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 see this post for more detailed tips.
Additionally, if a report is located behind a form on a landing page, it's a good practice to link to the form rather than directly to the PDF report.
It doesn't take much to stay up to date with the latest research in your topic area. It just takes an ongoing curiosity and a couple of good research sites.
Whether you tweet your perspective on a new statistic or thread a series of data points throughout your posts, good research will always make your content stickier and more consequential.
Do you use data in your posts? How do you find, check and cite that information?
Conor Powers-Smith is a content manager at Factbrowser.com. A version of this article originally appeared on Problogger.