The latest scandal in the world of digital marketing once again reminds us that, as 2017 approaches, we are heading into strange new marketing territory. More than half of all UK advertising spend now goes into digital. More than half of that half – actually three quarters of new digital spending in 2015 – goes to Google and Facebook. And these two companies are making it up as they go along in terms of terminology and measurement units as the speed of advertising change exceeds the capability of new marketing metrics.
So it was hardly surprising that Facebook, with its carousel of ever-changing video metrics would cock things up. Even the most cynical critic of digital marketing metrics (that would be me) would not accuse the company of deliberately misrepresenting its video data to appear more competitive. But it was indeed fortunate that the miscalculation, first of all, was in Facebook’s favour and, second, helped present an improved picture of its main Achilles’ heal – the duration of time people watch its videos. Facebook’s retention of viewers after 30 seconds of a video versus YouTube, never mind television, is notoriously bad. Very fortunately, this miscalculation lessened that apparent deficiency.
The specific error Facebook made was in its ‘average duration of video viewed’ measure. Up until last month, Facebook calculated this number by dividing the total minutes a video had been watched by the total number of views. The problem with that approach is that Facebook only counts a view when three seconds or more of time have elapsed – roughly the time period it would take to scroll through a video without actually processing it – but it was counting every single second of exposure from all users. The millions of users who did not make it to the third second of the video weren’t included in the calculation, but their billions of scrolling seconds were. The end result was a metric that was over-stated by up to 80% for the past two years.
As Facebook went to great pains last week to point out that, given advertisers only pay for an impression or a 10-second view, the error had no impact on how clients were billed for Facebook video. But this is disingenuous. The incorrect metric would not have influenced how much advertisers paid over the past two years, but it almost certainly would have influenced some clients’ perception of Facebook video and encouraged them to spend more on Facebook versus other channels, such as YouTube, given the inflated performance being presented.
But step back from the numbers and look at the whole episode if you really want to see what this little saga tells you about the years ahead in the brave new world of digital marketing.
First, Facebook’s approach to the initial error smacks of big, oligopolistic behavior at its very worst. On discovering it, Facebook made a brief and very minor apology on its user site a month ago, replaced the offending average duration of video viewed metric and one other with two new ones: ‘video average watch time’ and ‘video percentage watched’. It was only last week when the implications of the mistake were uncovered by the Wall Street Journal that Facebook was forced into a more effusive but still insufficient apology. Inventing yet more video metrics to replace the offending one also smacks of amateurism. If you mistakenly think the average of two and four is five, don’t invent a new process called ‘meanification’ and redo the calculation under a new banner. Just fix your maths and keep calling it an average.
Next, this little debacle once again confirms that nobody actually knows what the fuck is going on with digital media. Not media agencies, not big-spending clients and not armchair digital strategists. From the shadowy box of turds and spiders that is programmatic to the increasingly complex and deluded world of digital views, the idea that digital marketing is more analytical and attributable than other media is clearly horseshit. Sure, it has more numbers and many more metrics but that does not make it more accountable, it makes it less so.
Lastly, the inability of anyone to actually spot the error for two years provides yet more evidence that a situation in which two companies with a third of global advertising spend measure their impact with their own proprietary data is no way to handle the future of marketing communications. The irony of Facebook and Google joining forces to form part of the Coalition for Better Advertising should be apparent. More than happy to demand external validation of others, the quest for transparency stops sharp when it comes to their own operations. As Sir Martin Sorrell notes, these companies should not be left to “mark their own homework”. Especially if they keep getting their sums wrong.