How big is big? A lesson in keeping perspective – Guest Post by John Grono

Recently I’ve had a few guest authors contribute posts to the blog and I think it’s created some fantastic content and debate.

One of my favourite readers and commentator is John Grono. John runs GAP Research and works alongside organisations such as the MFA to make sure measurement initiatives are sound and robust. He has played a big role in evolving online measurement and is a leading authority on research methods and also output.

Plus his writing style is bloody interesting, as is the content.

I had emailed John asking if he wanted to make a guest post around some of the data used by those attempting to sell online services – be it ad space or strategy or whatever else. You know, those pieces of data that don’t make that much sense but are latched onto because they’re big numbers.

And thankfully, he accepted. So here is John’s guest post


First, thank you to Ben for asking me to do a guest post.   We had a natter and decided that rather than discuss any of the mechanics of audience research, to discuss the issue of “big numbers” in the online world.

What better place to look than that phenomenon that seems to be driving social media, Facebook?

I was struck back in the New Year when Facebook announced that over 3 billion minutes a day were spent on Facebook every day!   Yes, that says 3 billion, not 3 million.   What’s more, the latest data on the Facebook website now pegs it at over 6 billion minutes a day!   Wow, a massive audience and massive growth – a media strategist’s nirvana!

This got me thinking … how big is 6 billion and how can it be growing so quickly?

To provide some perspective I thought I’d look at Australian television as a point of comparison.   Using the 2008 OzTAM and RegTAM data I was able to calculate that the average Australian spends 193 minutes per day watching television.   The ABS population clock just ticked over to 22 million people.   Putting these two facts together we can see that on the average day Aussies spend 4.25 billion minutes a day watching the telly!   Yes, 4.25 billion.

Let’s consider that the Facebook usage figure is global, and that Australia is only 0.34% of the world’s population (and 2% of the Facebook active users).   Is it just me that finds it amazing that little old Australia, down at the arse-end of the world as Paul Keating infamously put it, can rack up 70% of the global Facebook time watching TV each day?

But I was still knocked out by that incredible growth in total minutes in such a short period of time.   I thought – fancy that, people are spending twice as long on Facebook as they were at the start of the year!   I’ve just got to get me some of that!

Again, I paused for thought.   I wondered what the growth in active users was over the same period.   Lo and behold, it had grown from 150 million to 300 million (Facebook website).  Double the users meant double the minutes, which made perfect sense.   It also meant that the average time each active user spends on Facebook a day has remained static at 20 minutes, or around one-tenth of Australian television usage.   Faced with this, I had to temper my initial enthusiasm on what I originally perceived as massive growth in ‘user engagement’.   Mind you, I am still gob-smacked by the massive and rapid increase in users – which is probably the most spectacular growth in media history, so hats off to Facebook!

I’m in no way having a go at Facebook here.   I have simply used their data because (i) it is freely available, and (ii) it is the biggest success story in terms of penetration, usage and growth going around, so was most worth looking at.

So what are the lessons I’d like you to take from this:

  • Don’t be seduced by large numbers, always look at them with some other perspective, benchmark, or point of comparison

  • Always look for reasons for spectacular growth and try and convert that growth into growth in usage for the average user, not absolute growth

Full disclosure: I don’t have a Facebook account.   Or a MySpace account, nor Twitter … but I do have others in the social sphere – it’s purely a personal choice.


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