Three Statistics That Lie

I love the line about lies; "there are lies, damned lies, and statistics". You can use numbers to tell any story you want.

In the realm of web statistics, there are three numbers that are great to use if you want to tell lies. They are:

- RSS subscriber numbers
- Facebook app install numbers
- Follower numbers on Twitter, Friendfeed, Tumblr, or some other social media service

I tell you this because there is a discussion brewing on Techmeme this morning about how to get a lot of followers on FriendFeed. And I am telling you that the number of followers you have may be relevant early on in the life of a service, but it really doesn’t matter in the long run.

Let’s start with RSS subscribers. This blog has, according to FeedBurner, 133,000 RSS subscribers. That’s a big number. But the number of people who read this blog via the feed every day averages less than 4,000. Why is that? Well for one, that subscriber number has grown every day and never goes down. It includes people who stopped reading a long time ago, people who subscribed in multiple readers but now only use one reader, people who read once a month or once a year, etc, etc. Bottom line is the 133,000 number is basically useless.

Now lets look at Facebook app installs. Let’s look at the Social Gaming Network (SGN). Their Facebook apps have been installed almost 46 million times. And yet all the games together average about 650,000 daily users. Why is that? Well for mostly the same reasons. Some people install Free Gifts once, but rarely use it after that. I don’t mean to pick on SGN. It’s true for every Facebook app company. Our portfolio company Zynga has had 51 million of their apps installed and averages 1.7mm daily users. That’s the way it is in the Facebook app economy.

And the same is true with followers on Twitter, FriendFeed, and Tumblr. I have 5,152 followers on Twitter, 4,482 followers on FriendFeed, and  877 followers on Tumblr. I don’t know of any way to calculate the number of people who actually visit my updates on Twitter or FriendFeed, but I do know that my tumblog gets on average 250 visits per day. I suspect the radio of daily users/viewers to followers on Twitter and FriendFeed are much lower than Tumblr, maybe approaching the 3% number of feed readers to feed subscribers number.

Social media is no different from all media. The number of people who at one point were interested in your content or service is not that meaningful. What matters is the number of people who engage with your content or service on a daily basis and how engaged they are. And RSS subscribers, Facebook app installs, and follower numbers don’t measure that.