How accurate are RapLeaf’s numbers? Can social media metrics be trusted for fandom studies?

January 10th, 2010 by Laura Leave a reply »

Yesterday, I was poking around the Internet to see if anyone had done any large scale demographic study of the characteristics of online fandom because sometimes, I feel like I’m the only person doing this. Most of the research I see relies heavily on survey work, which can be tremendously self selecting in terms of population. As a result, I tend to be generally distrustful of this work for demographic analysis or where it doesn’t speak to a small select population and isn’t a case study.

I did find one small study posted on Scribd titled Study on Sports Fans Demographics on Social Networks.  It was done by RapLeaf.  It had some interesting conclusions like half of hockey fans are female, compared to 40% for basketball and 35% for baseball.  It also concluded that 85% of sports fans are under the age of 35.  Fascinating.   They didn’t go much into their methodology much, beyond that they did this across social networks.

I’m rather skeptical of RapLeaf’s methodology here.  If I go to Facebook’s advertising demographics page, I get 26,240 female fans on ice hockey in the United States and 61,420 male fans of ice hockey in the United States.  (Ice hockey being necessary because in some countries, the hockey means field hockey.  In others, it means roller hockey.)  For the Chicago Blackhawks, 135,000 (55%)  fans are male and 112,00 (45%) are female.    For the Boston Bruins, 33,780 fans are female and 56,740 fans are male.  These numbers are a bit different than 50% and I’m not sure all the major social networks combined are going to get populations larger than Facebook.

Are there more than 90,000 American ice hockey fans on bebo, LiveJournal, LinkedIn, blogger, Quizilla, MySpace?  Are there more than 243,000 fans of the Blackhawks on those networks when combined?  Maybe but I some how doubt it.

Quantcast has some demographic data up regarding gender breakdown of visitors to the NHL’s website.  Quantcast thinks that 59% of the visitors are male and 41% are female.  That’s much more in line with what the team specific data from Facebook is pulling.  The NHL also has a much bigger contributor pool, with about 2.1 million US visitors a month.

If you look on RapLeaf’s site, they give you a sample report for the data they provide, which includes a gender break down for users of various social networks.  One of the sites they offer a gender breakdown for is LiveJournal.  LiveJournal does have a gender field for its users to fill out and they use this information internally; there is no public display.  In fact, when they it looked like they might have made that information public, people complained loudly.  There are no indications from RapLeaf’s site that they have a partnership with networks like LiveJournal or LinkedIn where they are given access to this non-public data.   Where exactly are they pulling that data from?  It really begs the question of accuracy of RapLeaf’s numbers in this case.

I’d love to see a real demographic study about the composition of sports fandom and other fan communities.  It is a fascinating topic and can really go a long ways towards explaining how communities interact with each other, how they function and allow researchers to make better comparisons across communities.  I’m just not certain that the social media metrics provided by marketers, the only population that really seems to be working on this, can be trusted with their numbers any more than academic researchers with self selection survey populations can.

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