By Rachel Davidson, Content Specialist, Highspot

Which of the following statements are based on research?

a) “48% of all salespeople never follow up with a prospect.”
b) “2% of sales are made on the first contact.”
c) “Business buyers say interactions with providers influence their purchasing decisions more than anything else.”
d) All the above

Answer: C. (via Harvard Business Review). In fact, A and B are complete fiction.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Scarily enough, most of the percentages you read in those compelling thought leadership pieces are either embellished and taken out of context or completely made up from scratch.

Venture Beat did a great job discussing this in their article, Those Incredible Sales Stats Everyone Cites Are Actually Completely False. The title tells all.

Today we’re taking a look at how much data people find in their daily news sources, and questioning why many times, we end up taking this information at face value.

Today’s we’re taking a look at the amount of data people encounter every day, questioning the credibility of that data, and analyzing why we end up taking all of this information at face value – time and time again.

The Problem with Statistical Malpractice

When a business journalist or sales blogger throws out a few facts and figures in order to support a compelling narrative, most audience members don’t bat an eye. It’s simply easier to accept a story as it’s been given instead of questioning it for what it really means. By nature, we want to avoid critical thinking while believing and trusting in our news sources.

People accept statistical assertions as fact for many reasons, mostly because they…

– sound credible
– corroborate personal biases and beliefs
– seem exact
– are provided by familiar sources

The truth is that an increasing proportion of content features unsubstantiated data that’s out of context, unsupported, and most importantly – misleading. Whether intentional or not, this is what we call Statistical Malpractice:

Using statistics to promote a point without attribution or without a balanced point of view.

Today we’re questioning the status quo of data journalism and teaching you how to be more scrupulous about your daily news feed.

The biggest urban legends in sales + marketing

When you hear a report described time after time again from multiple sources, it’s easy to believe it as fact – even if it contains sensitive data. That, dear readers, is called an urban legend.

We’ve compiled a few of our favorite urban legends that seem to circulate within content management and sales circles. Here are a few of the biggest (believable) myths that bloggers spread about sales and selling, according to Contrary Domino’s 78% of All Sales Statistics Are Made Up:

• “Ninety percent of all sales people never bother to ask for the business.”
• “Eighty percent of all sales people still do about 20 percent of the business.”
• “Sixty-five percent of a sales rep’s time is spent NOT selling.”

Those are some catchy numbers, and we mean literally catchy. These statistics “caught on” to sales leader’s radars and ended up influencing their beliefs and business strategies.

However, no matter how easy it is to believe that these journalists are out to spread fake news to the public – that’s not always the case.

The “malpractice” of Statistical Malpractice simply means that an author has omitted support of or context around a specific data point. There’s simply no way to get a grasp on what it is that the figure really means.

When was this measured? What was the sample size? Who were the people being polled, and what was their relationship with the surveyor?

What to look for

Take, for example, the 2017 State of Sales Enablement study conducted by Heinz Marketing and Highspot. In the introduction the authors clarify the timeliness, survey method, and key findings. They’ve done their due diligence. They’ve established credibility and authority over a subject matter that both companies already specialize in. They’ve avoided statistical malpractice, and provided their readers with valuable, digestible information that improves businesses.

Although we can take a page from Highspot’s best practices, the real solution to filtering through deceptive data comes down to an individual being able to distinguish the shiny object from something that has real substance.

So, how can executives protect themselves from marketing misinformation?

Don’t beat yourself up; this gullibility is something we’re all prone to. In fact, skeptic guru and author Michael Shermer speaks publicly on this topic time and time again. Check out his TED Talk on Why People Believe Weird Things, as an example.

Here are a few tips to get you started in critical thinking and protecting yourself from becoming a victim to statistical malpractice.

(1) Exercise caution. Be wary of the words “obviously,” “clearly,” and phrases like “everyone knows that…” These are some of the simplest ways to fall into the trap of convincing yourself that you’ve made the deductive reasoning, and that you’ve reached this conclusion that the author is providing you with.

(2) Recognize hype when you see it. Every year it’s a new hysteria: “content marketing is dead,” “computers will replace content marketers,” “you’re doing content marketing all wrong.” Take each of these trends with a grain of salt and think about what motive the author might have, or why this particular company might be sharing this information. Do research elsewhere, compare and contrast the best resources available, and take initiative to question what doesn’t look right.

(3) Ask the author: “Can you back that up?” Don’t be afraid to ask tough questions – especially for data that sounds like it lacks foundation. If a writer is credible, they will be happy to expand on a data point. If not, maybe they’ll think twice the next time they throw together an argument.

(4) Whenever possible, find the source. Don’t take doubtable data points at face value. Find out where the discovery came from, and whether it was properly vetted. The lack of any source is a red flag that someone asserted the finding based on anecdotal information or gut feel.

Statistical malpractice exists to make you uncomfortable. The entire point is to alarm people in order to promote a specific position on a topic. Authors use data like weapons – they’re looking for that shocked and helpless reaction; they want readers to really pay attention.

So, it’s time to go ahead and do just that. The next time you’re reading your daily digest of sales, marketing, and business articles, follow our steps for detecting marketing misinformation. Exercise caution, don’t give into hype, and question the author’s motives every step of the way.

Reading analytics isn’t always easy, but critically thinking smarter is a cinch.

Author Bio

Rachel Davidson is a content specialist at Highspot, the sales enablement industry’s leading platform for content management, customer engagement, and analytics.