Facebook missteps highlight what happens when you can’t trust platform metrics

  •   December 7, 2018
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Facebook has a history of miscalculating video ad metrics. In 2016, the company admitted it had been overstating the average duration of a video view time. The following year, it acknowledged over-charging advertisers for clicks on link-based mobile video carousel ads. As recently as October, Facebook video ad counts made the news again when a small group of advertisers accused the company in a class-action lawsuit of inflating video ad metrics by as much as 900 percent — and keeping the error under wraps for more than a year.

While advertisers’ trust in Facebook video ad numbers is arguably tenuous at best, the scenario makes it clear that having to rely on any platform-native performance metrics comes with its own challenges — from gauging the success of a campaign to making sure ad dollars are being spent efficiently and accurately.

Can advertisers still trust Facebook?

“With Facebook, as with other platforms we buy ad inventory through, we’ve got a history of relying on them to be transparent,” said Michael Priem, founder and CEO of the ad tech firm Modern Impact, “We trust that their numbers and calculations and how they’re pulling them are what they’re actually reporting.”

Priem said even with third-party trackers there is going to be a slight discrepancy, but not the 900 percent inflation reported by Facebook advertisers earlier this year.

“Why did they get away with this? Because, for some reason, we believed Facebook because they’re Facebook — even with past mistakes, we still saw them as a trustworthy ad platform,” said Priem, “It’s when agencies and brands come together like in this lawsuit that voices get heard and changes happen. Sad that it has to come to this point, but our job is to get the most ROI for our clients’ ad spend and now we can’t do that without trust and/or third-party tracking.”

Cory Henke, founder and CEO of Variable Media, an analytics agency, said advertisers should remain skeptical of Facebook, but he doesn’t limit his skepticism to Facebook alone.

“I would be moderately to extremely weary, but I don’t think the skepticism should be any different than any other platform,” said Henke, “What throws me for a loop is our skepticism of Facebook results, but we don’t question the validity of Google Analytics as they provide results for their own sister and brother properties as well as other competitors, like social channels and other web referrers.”

Henke said advertisers should be skeptical of all platforms — regardless of the times they’ve been caught reporting bad data.

“The point is that your skepticism for results shouldn’t be new. Skepticism should be placed across the entire industry. Personally, my skepticism has always been there, and more recently as they [Facebook] removed the video view metric at 30-seconds — very interesting removal.”

When to use third-party measurement

Priem said third-party trackers are recommended if an advertiser can afford to implement them. Zvika Goldstein, chief product officer and digital manager of social for Kenshoo, a digital ad platform, echoed Priems comments.

Goldstein said video measurements have been especially difficult for most publishers and marketers over the years.

“These kinds of challenges are what’s driving savvy marketers to embrace independent technology solutions, which can provide a more holistic and independent view of cross-channel campaigns when deciding where to spend their next dollar,” said Goldstein.

Cary Smith, senior vice president for North 6th Agency, a New York City-based public social media agency, said third-party measurement can be helpful as a tool to collect data, but that it’s not the only solution.

“It’s important for companies to measure success on their own terms,” said Smith, “Additionally, posting content across multiple platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Instagram will give you a better cross section to measure your success as long as the content is optimized for each platform.”

Henke also believes advertisers are best served when tracking a campaign’s performance by looking at the bigger picture across multiple platforms.

“If an advertiser is worried about Facebook video metrics, I would treat them how we treat ad networks today with a very short leash and just evaluate the media channel strictly on a performance basis, and compare it against the other placements,” said Henke.

The bigger issue: Protecting ad investments

In general, Henke doesn’t see Facebook’s measurement errors as an issue for brands, even those with smaller budgets — instead, he believes advertisers need to look beyond specific metrics.

“I don’t think the measurement issue is a big one for a brand with limited resources as most of these brands should be — and most likely are focused on — performance. If measurement is that big of an issue you shouldn’t be on Facebook, period. Head over to YouTube — lower cost-per-views with users who watch for longer periods of time.”

Truth is, video advertising is not going anywhere but up right now. EMarketer estimates video advertising will end up having grown nearly 30 percent year over year by the end of 2018, with video accounting for 25 percent of all digital ad spend in the U.S. this year.

In spite of Facebook’s trust issues with consumers and advertisers alike, most marketers are still allocating a sizable chunk of their video ad budgets to the platform. According to eMarketer, Facebook will take 24.5 percent of all U.S. video ad spend in 2018 — making it the top social video ad platform in the U.S.

“I’ve discussed this with many advertisers, and current concerns focus on a desire to take more proactive control of their investments than with publisher trust issues,” said Goldstein, “To that end, many choose not to rely on campaign results reporting, controls and automation tools provided by publishers — instead opting to protect that investment with a third-party cross-channel campaign management platform like ours.”

According to Henke, there are multiple answers if the question is “Should advertisers trust Facebook?,” and that advertisers shouldn’t dismiss Facebook video simply because of its track record with video ad counts. In fact, he said, he trusts the native platform numbers more than verification solutions.

“I’ve used very few third-party measurement tools with respect to video in the past years,” said Henke, “The problem I have with them is that if all verification of the ads, placement, or user behavior is correct — do they have a business?”

Ultimately, according to Henke, an advertiser’s trust in any platform metrics — third-party or otherwise — leads back to the original question of skepticism.

“In my opinion, the ad networks and ad exchanges are struggling today because they couldn’t solve third-party measurement issue, so at this point, you have the duopoly, and if I compare them to the rest of the digital media opportunities today, I trust them — but only in comparison.”

When it comes to measuring the success of a video campaign, Henke believes its best to compare and contrast the performance of other media channels and create a market for quality video viewing.

Alternative metrics

When looking at the broad scope of what video advertisers should be tracking, Cary Smith of North 6th Agency reminds marketers that the surface number of views provided by Facebook isn’t necessarily a worthwhile KPI.

“Advertisers should also be looking deeper by tracking average percentage completions — this provides much more accurate snapshot of how a video is performing, and where you might be losing your audience,” says Smith, “Metrics such as reach and engagement are good indicators of a video’s performance — for example, more comments mean the video is connecting well with your audience.”

Henke also recommends marketers consider higher-level engagement when gauging the success of video ad campaigns.

“What videos do users gravitate towards versus others? Which videos created the highest amount of earned view engagement?”

Henke said his analytics agency looks at engagement and performance metrics on Facebook because he knows both matter, but his team is primarily focused on performance metrics such as return on ad spend, cost-per-acquisition, click-to-conversion ratio.

“One recent advantage we’ve uncovered in Story ads is when you run video as well as an image, you can see how many shares a creative received,” Henke said. “Thus, when we run Stories, this is a key metric that we look at to evaluate user behavior, and ultimately influences what type of creative we should build next.”