Content marketers like to cite long-held statistics in their blog articles that get batted around from story to story, blog to blog, marketer to marketer. They’re the stories that get told over and over and over again, but no one is actually sure where they come from. They’re just widely accepted and firmly believed, even though they may be decades old.
For example, when I worked in direct mail, we repeated the stat that dirt mail postcards had a 1 – 3% read rate. That is, for every 100 people who received a direct mail postcard, roughly three people read it.
I asked my boss, a direct mail veteran of 30+ years how he knew that, and he admitted he didn’t know. It was just something he’d always heard and said.
There’s another famous story about “a Harvard study” where the researchers found that reducing the number of choices of gourmet jams led to increased sales. I’ve heard that story told so many times in hushed tones around marketing campfires — “and one of the researchers had a hook for a hand!” — the urban legend is now taken as lore, but none of us knew the origins of the story.
(For the record, it’s a study from 2000 by Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Mark Lepper of Stanford University. Not Harvard.)
And of course, there’s Ernest Hemingway’s famous-but-fake quote, “Write drunk, edit sober.”
He didn’t actually say it, and I’m ashamed to admit, I perpetuated that urban legend for a few years until I finally looked for the original source of the quote.
Original Sources Fight Fake News
The last four years have shown us the importance of fighting the gaslighting and intellectual laziness of calling something fake news. And we know that the only way journalists can counter accusations of fake news is to do original reporting.
That is, they interview the original sources of information. They go all the way to the insiders, the people who made a thing happen, the people on the scene. They don’t repeat stories from other news sources, they don’t pass along claims they saw in other newspapers or TV news segments. They don’t report things they heard from other reporters.
Journalism is not just a game of Telephone played by people repeating claim after claim after claim. When you see a story in the New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters, or Associated Press, you can be reasonably sure these journalists have gotten their details from the original sources on the scene.
(They have to, because if they’re found to be making things up, they could get sued. It’s rather telling that the people who whine about “fake news!” have not sued the news outlets over it. They could win millions of dollars if they could demonstrate that anything in the media was made up.)
So What Do Original Sources Have to Do With Content Marketing?
Fortunately (for many of us), marketers are not held to the same standards as journalists.
(I mean, could you imagine???)
But for those of us who actually do try to uphold some level of ethics and honesty, original reporting can only help us.
And while not all of us have the time, money, or resources to do our own original research — studies, surveys, massive A/B testing — we do have the ability to track down citations to their original source. (If you can do original research though, think of all the bloggers and speakers who will write about your findings!)
With my background in academia and being a “little-j journalist” (i.e., I’m a newspaper columnist, not a professional journalist), I’m all about the original sources. Whenever I need to cite a specific source, I always look for the original study or story that inspired the game-of-Telephone citations we typically find on the web. (See the above jam study)
The “famous” Coopers & Lybrand Document Management Study
Several months ago, I was doing a search for document management statistics, and I found article after article that shared some very damning statistics about paper filing systems, all from the same 1998 Coopers & Lybrand document management study. Here are a few:
- US companies spend approximately $20 on labor costs in order to file a document, $120 on the labor required to find a misfiled document and $220 to reproduce a lost document.
- For companies that manage their own files, employees spend between 20-40% of their time searching for documents manually.
- Employees spend more than 50% of their time searching for information.
- The average document is copied 19 times.
Terrible! Just terrible! Why are people still using paper files if we know this to be true?
Again, given my fixation on citing original sources, I found a blog post that linked to another article where I could find the statistics. It linked to another article with the same stats. Which linked to another article. And another. And another. And so on and on.
I followed over a dozen articles, each linking to another article, hoping to find the original copy of this clearly-important study. I mean, an entire industry had built their whole raison d’être on these statistics, so surely someone somewhere had something on it!
I found several dozen blog posts, and none of them — seriously, not one! — linked to the original study. They all linked to each other, but no one had a PDF copy of the famous Coopers & Lybrand study.
But I did find a 2012 article from a company called Scan123 about these incredible statistics:
These are usually attributed to a 1998 study by consulting firm Coopers & Lybrand, which merged with Price Waterhouse to become PricewaterhouseCoopers in that same year. These “facts” are still repeated by electronic document management companies almost fifteen years later because they paint a compelling picture of costly inefficiency to which a document management solution is the answer. We used to cite this study ourselves in our marketing materials for Scan123.
Seriously? That’s it?
No, that’s not all. They also cited a 2010 blog article by John Mancini who wrote:
While many of us have used these stats in a million presentations, I wonder, “Does anyone have the original report? Does anyone know the actual name of the report?”
One of the speakers at a recent AIIM seminar on ECM mentioned the data, and an attendee asked for the original source. Having used the data a million times myself, I searched through my hard drive. No dice. Then I turned to the web. No dice. Many references to the “1998 Coopers & Lybrand report,” but no actual copy or link.
As of Scan123’s article in 2012, John Mancini had not received an original copy of the “1998 Coopers & Lybrand report,” so I emailed him to see if he has received anything in the last 11 years. I’ll let you know if I hear anything back.
(Update: I emailed John when I wrote this article, and on April 27, 2021, he wrote back to me: “Nobody ever came forward with the original report.”)
Bottom Line: Find Original Sources
If you want to avoid the marketer’s curse, or the label of “fake news,” stick to as much original reporting as you can. Do your own original research and interview your own subjects. If you can’t do that, then get as close to the original sources as you can.
Find the original study and download a PDF copy. Link to the original readable file in your blog articles and reports. Pull blockquotes from the original article (like I did above).
Don’t just do a quick Google search and link to the first article you find that supports what you say. That’s how the Cooper & Lybrand study became an industry-standard without an original document to back it up.
Photo credit: Jarmoluk (Pixabay, Creative Commons 0)
Photo credit: C.A.D.Schjelderup (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 4.0)