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Pseudo scientific results lead to bad decisions: the example of spelling mistakes

My attention was recently caught by an article reposted on Linkedin by one person in my network. The article was entitled “market shares are lost due to spelling mistakes”. Wow .. when you read a title like this it’s difficult to resist the temptation of opening the hyperlink and actually read the article.

The article by Alain Gerlache describes how spelling has become a skill that fewer and fewer professionals master; the author explains that spelling mistakes have an influence on the perceived professionalism of company. In a world where the competition is each day fiercer, avoid spelling mistakes allows to be better perceived by consumers and to increase the odds of making business with them.

The paramount argument is a study echoed by the BBC which “reveals” that one spelling mistake is enough to lose market shares. This “study” is actually a statement made by Mr. Duncombe, a websites owner: “he measured the revenue per visitor to the tightsplease.co.uk website and found that the revenue was twice as high after an error was corrected”.

This “study” falls short of arguments and doesn’t prove anything. In light of the working paper I recently published with Laurence Rosier there are a few aspects neglected in this “study” that need to be taken into account.


Spelling mistakes do influence consumers’ perceptions

It’s true to say that spelling mistakes do influence consumers’ perceptions. The question is however the following: are consumers’ perceptions sufficiently altered by spelling mistakes to modify their buying patterns? Reading Mr. Duncombe’s statement it seems that it actually does. Yet Mr. Ducombe doesn’t provide enough information to convince us that spelling mistakes, as an “isolated factor”, play this role. It could well be that there are myriad other factors of greater weight affecting buying patterns and that Mr. Duncombe, by manipulating spelling and neglecting the variance of other factors, has not observed the result of incorrect spelling but of other factors.


Do all consumers actually notice spelling mistakes?

There is one aspect that is completely forgotten and that has, to the best of our knowledge, not investigated yet: do all consumers actually perceive spelling mistakes the same way? It is reasonable to say that consumers with a PhD literature may be more sensitive to spelling than people with no education. This is actually the subject of our ongoing research with Laurence Rosier. Mr. Duncombe cannot conclude on any influence of spelling mistakes on revenues without controlling his sample in terms of education.


Not all spelling mistakes are equal

Not all spelling mistakes are equal in terms of overall perception. Najeb et al. (2012) concluded in their research that “poor language and spelling implicate politeness or a lack of politeness”. Some authors have shown that electronic communication has modified the perception of what is acceptable and what is not in terms of politeness. It result that there must be a certain level of “tolerance” regarding spelling mistakes (which, ironically, is mentioned by the BBC itself when quoting Dutton of the Oxford Institute). Spelling mistakes impeding the overall understanding of a text may well belong to the higher category which in turns may influence perceptions (or professionalism) and behaviors (the behavior being influenced by the risk perceived of dealing with a non-professional organization). Yet, it is also reasonable to say that some hard-to-notice spelling mistakes will not influence behaviors significantly. Without pre-testing the level of perceived “gravity” of the spelling he manipulated, Mr. Duncombe cannot conclude on any influence his experiment may have.


Advice for your marketing strategy

People are quick to react on provocative title like the one of Alain Gerlache. The conclusion is simple to understand and the effect seems so big that readers will certainly find the motivation to correct their spelling. Yet, after closer examination, the very argument everything is based on is extremely weak. Conclusions are therefore built on fragile basis that do not guarantee anything in terms of actual effect. It looks like if some stakeholders (read companies checking employee’s proficiency in one language) had a personal interest to promote such articles.

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Dr. Pierre-Nicolas Schwab is the founder of IntoTheMinds. He specializes in e-commerce, retail and logistics. He is also a research fellow in the marketing department of the Free University of Brussels and acts as a coach for several startups and public organizations. He holds a PhD in Marketing, a MBA in Finance, and a MSc in Chemistry. He can be contacted by email, Linkedin or by phone (+32 486 42 79 42)

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