Editor’s note: Tom Hutchison is principal product director at research firm Acxiom, Little Rock, Ark. This is an edited version of a post that originally appeared under the title, “How many penguins do polar bears eat?" 

Polar bears are apex predators. That means nothing eats them, and they’ll eat just about anything they can get their paws on. They grow to sizes that can exceed 1,500 pounds, which lets them hunt walrus, seals, caribou, musk ox and other large animals. So, it must take a lot of penguins to fill one up, right? Just how many penguins do polar bears eat?

As it turns out, I can tell you exactly how many penguins polar bears eat each year. Not about how many or a range of what it might be; I can tell you an exact number. That number is zero. Polar bears live in the Arctic Circle and penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere. Their territories don’t overlap, so no penguins ever lose their lives to polar bears.

When someone offers a premise, you must be careful there aren’t any hidden assumptions or missing facts that might otherwise influence what you think about that idea. People will often support their premise with data to make it seem more valid, but numbers and statistics often mask actual conditions.

For instance, there is an often-quoted statistic in the mobile marketing space that states, “90% of all text messages are read in less than three minutes.” That may be true, but many phones display text messages automatically as they’re received, so the user may read the message because their phone forces it on them, not because they are really engaged with the content, as the quote would suggest.

An app publisher recently boasted “10 million downloads” for one of its games. The implication is that more than 10 million people use the app, but many people delete apps they don’t regularly use to make room for pictures, music and cat videos. When they need the app, they just download it again. The inflated download statistics make the app look more popular than it really is.

Match rates for online media also have been climbing as companies improve their handling of personally identifiable information and linkages to mobile devices to better estimate the size of customer audiences. Yet, those counts may not consider the number of people who are using ad-blocking software. While a high match rate implies you can reach a large percentage of your customer base, other conditions can impact your ability to actually reach them.


The earlier question (How many penguins do polar bears eat?) offers a premise. It suggests that polar bears eat penguins but in reality we know that doesn’t happen. They aren’t from the same part of the world. Statements, even when supported with data, can still include unstated assumptions and related facts that affect the perception of what they mean.

Question the basis of information presented to you and look for more data that may provide additional insights. You might ask for click-through rates for text messages or the number of unique users who download an app, or you may request a waterfall report showing the kinds of matches you get for your customers in online media. Data is an indispensable tool for understanding your audience and planning how you will engage your customers. Don’t be satisfied with single metrics that provide only one perspective. Gather as many data points as you can handle to get the deepest comprehension possible.