Mark Ritson: Why can’t marketers see that digital metrics are bullshit?

Digital metrics are a mess of confusion and obfuscation, but it’s clear most marketers have bought into this opaque and over-complicated world.

digital metricsLast Thursday I found myself addressing about a thousand marketers. I was one of four speakers debating the motion ‘Digital Metrics are Bullshit’ at Australia’s biggest marketing conference Mumbrella360. My teammate, a senior figure from news media, and my good self were designated to go first. Then our opponents, two big hitters from the world of digital media, would present the case against the motion.

I’m a man who leans heavily on Powerpoint most of the time, often using it to explain things to my wife or properly park my car. So the absence of graphical jiggery-pokery had me on the back foot from the outset. As my name was read out I approached the lectern and glanced up at the bright, eager faces pointed in my direction. I took a long pause and opened up all four barrels of the erudition machine.

READ MORE: ‘Facebook needs to do more than be open and honest about metrics errors’

“I measured my penis this morning,” I began. “I took out the small, Swiss leather tape measure that I carry with me on my travels and spent five minutes carefully and accurately assessing both the length and girth of my penis. I noted down the specific numbers in a matching leather journal, also Swiss-made, which I have used to record all my penis measurements since school days. I then contemplated the metrics for several minutes and eventually reached for my phone.”

At this point in my speech I looked across the room for my old mate Charlie Murdoch who sat oblivious and entirely unaware I was about to bring him into play. “Where is Charlie Murdoch?” I asked the bemused room. “Charlie, you see, also measures his penis most mornings, isn’t that right Charlie?”

Charlie’s head dropped for a second and then he shot me the sad smile and barely perceptible nod of a man that knows there is no use fighting. “And I asked Charlie if he wanted to pop over to my room and double check my measurements while I had a go at his. Within minutes Charlie was up in my room and we were at it with tape measures until we both agreed our measures were indeed correct. Then we ate some pastries.”

Facebook has been so successful that more than 100% of all young people now use Facebook. Yes, you read that correctly.

Story over, I used the remaining five minutes of my time to contrast my bizarre measurement habits with the world of digital metrics. Every time I measure my penis I need to be certain that the measures are true. A sudden reading suggesting my penis has become smaller overnight or, even worse, is now inexplicably larger than it was the morning before is likely to send me into spasms of concern. Good metrics need to be reliable.

Facebook’s digital metrics errors

The current panoply of Facebook errors which has now moved into double figures (if my metrics are correct) demonstrates exactly the problem. Indeed, Facebook has been so successful that more than 100% of all young people now use Facebook. What? Yes, you read that entirely correctly.

Simon Redican, the CEO of the National Readership Survey, and Dominic Mills over at Mediatel both uncovered the remarkable statistic that Facebook reaches more 15-24 year olds in the UK than actually exist. Facebook claims to reach nine million of them, which is about 800,000 more than inhabit the UK according to the Office of National Statistics.

At least that 10% overstatement is consistent with the global data where Facebook also manages to secure a greater audience than is actually physically possible. Marketing consultant Simon Kemp recently observed that there are “more 18 year old males using Facebook than there are 18 year old males living on Earth”. Ahem.

Secondly, metrics must be elegant. I believe too many of our friends of a digital persuasion are confusing the raft of different, ever more bemusing metrics on a giant flashing dashboard with the power and elegance of measuring less but doing it with more certainty, focus and elan. Rather than measure everything, why not measure a few things (like reach) properly.

When Facebook, to pick on them once again, starting uncovering their measurement errors last year they boldly promised to head home and check on their other existing 220 audience measures to make sure there were not more errors in the mix. Can you imagine: 220 measures? Is it any wonder there is confusion in client land, non-transparency in media world, and mistakes from digital platforms?

I use simply length and girth to measure my penis because, well, that is all I need to know what is what. I could in theory have a whole arsenal of other metrics such as square inch coverage, elasticity ratios, median surface temperature but I have decided they would not aid me in actually monitoring the essential issue at hand.

We either look upon the flailing complexity of digital data as a paragon of empiricism or as a contagion of suspicious flaws and missteps.

And while I could measure my penis all afternoon long with a small bundle of electrodes, which would relay – with the aid of Bluetooth and a tiny aerial discretely inserted into my boxer shorts – real-time updates on my penis size to my smartphone, I have decided that a single measure several times a week will suffice. Sometimes, even in the world of penises, less is more.

And then there is Charlie. Dear, dear Charlie. What good is measurement without objective and entirely comparable measures from others; being able to ask him to double-check my numbers, to compare his measures with mine. To know, with an infallible sense of superiority, how my own measures compare to his is just as important as the reliability issue of how my statistics vary from day to day. The whole point of a metric is to enable accurate and trustworthy comparison.

And yet where are those comparison metrics? At some point surely we will start to see – apples to apples, penis to penis – how Facebook video stacks up against YouTube video for certain audiences at certain times. While TV measures are hardly perfect they do offer us an immediate and comparable picture of different channels and programs. This is still largely missing from the digital world.

P&G marketing chief Marc Pritchard recently bemoaned the amount of time his marketing teams must spend trying to decipher between the various digital platforms and their special, unique metrics. He compared the situation to trying to administer a football contest in which each team had its own rulebook, measures and conception of what a goal consisted of. Chaos in other words.

Marketers’ digital blindness

My 10 minutes was up and I sat back down, my point hopefully made. I concluded that digital metrics are bullshit because they are not reliable enough. They are bullshit because there are too many of them. They are bullshit because they obfuscate comparison rather than optimise it. They are bullshit because, when it all comes down to it, two giant companies will not share their source data with each other or anyone else.

I find that disappointing from Facebook. But I find it frankly befuddling from Google, a company that travels the world openly and repeatedly boasting about its mission to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible”. Why bother with the world? Just start with your own company.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – Marketers’ obsession with digital comes with a sting in the tail

I was followed by my co-speaker, who talked rather eloquently and with great reserve (no mention of penises, not even once) about the problems of measurement and the need for digital metrics to improve. Our opponents then took the floor and used an array of slides and videos to first suggest that the metrics for TV, radio and outdoor were bullshit and then to lampoon your humble correspondent with various animated images and recordings of me in an attempt to suggest I was a Donald Trump-like figure who was on a par with climate change deniers.

While slightly painful to endure, this was all fair game. But none of it spoke to the issue of the debate. Not one bullet point. We were not there to debate whether traditional media metrics are flawed (they are), or whether I am a plonker (I am), we were there to discuss digital metrics. And we heard nothing on the topic from either debater.

“We’ve got this nailed down,” I whispered to my co-debater. “No contest.”

And yet when our chairwoman asked for a show of hands at the end of the debate it indicated far more of the audience disagreed with the motion that digital metrics were bullshit than agreed. We had lost. And lost badly.

It was clear that we have reached a kind of ‘Rorschach moment’ in marketing. We either look upon the flailing complexity of digital data as a paragon of empiricism or as a contagion of suspicious flaws and missteps. What depressed me most about the news that Facebook had more users than existed on the planet was not the mistake itself, but the army of digital apologists who instantly sprang up to explain, without apparently missing a beat, why it was entirely possible – preferable even – to have more users of Facebook than human beings.

Nothing to see here. Move back to your terminal.

We live in divided times, both politically and commercially. You either believe in the power of digital metrics or you think they stink to high heaven. And there are very few people sitting on the fence anymore. Most, if my debate is anything to go by, have already clambered over it and are sitting on the other side nestled between the two digital mountains of Google and Facebook, enjoying the shade.

Or maybe I am just a bad debater. As one member of the audience, a certain Charles Murdoch, noted as we left the room, he did not need a tape measure to assess just how big a dick I was. Precisely.

  • Professor Mark Ritson will be teaching the next class on the Marketing Week Mini MBA in Marketing from September 2017. To find out how it could make you a more confident, more effective and more inspired marketer, and to book your place, click here.
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Comments
  • Satish Pai 14 Jun 2017 at 1:55 am

    ‘ad contrarian’ Bob Hoffman took part in a similar debate last week in Canada, on Ad Tech
    The audience was divided kinda like the Brexit as the MC quipped. Brave crowd

    Even in the emerging markets where web penetration is lower, the usage of digital is more lack of choice and the ‘access’ it promises.

    Hopefully P&G and other advertisers might lead the way in bringing accountability to the process

  • Phil Ohren 14 Jun 2017 at 4:25 am

    Length or girth?
    Aim or distance?
    Very different metrics for very different penal applications.
    My needs across those four metrics alone have changed several times throughout my life.

    Perhaps these ‘metrics’ are bullshit because the application of their insight is also?
    If Google and Facebook sold inventory based its advertisers outcome (eg. 3 cars s old) then there’d never be a need fo a CPM, Population Vol or CPC.
    Alas, many believe in awareness and ad-recall.

    The problem here is the marketer and they’re conversations.
    You can’t be disappointed at a Google or Facebook for pleasing the masses.

  • Adil Ehsan 14 Jun 2017 at 8:11 am

    As someone who is an advocate for digital I can’t help but agree with a lot of what is said. If you measure everything (or try to) you sometimes measure nothing. The lack of consistency across publishers just further adds to this soup of data. The trick is pulling out and ignoring 90% of it, really sticking to your guns on what is KEY (Generally unique reach and some form of creative/engagement measure), applying a healthy dose of skepticism but having an independent non-internet based Brand tracker or so to see as much as possible your results in the real world.

  • Steve Jex 14 Jun 2017 at 8:59 am

    We need to distinguish between what is a “statistic” and what is a “metric”. A metric is a number that occurs as a result of something happening – someone clicking on my Facebook ads, for example, is very accurate because FB charges me everytime it happens. If I place the Google conversion tag on pages that no one will ever see unless they buy something then the metric “conversions” is pretty accurate too. One reason Facebook don’t actually know how many 18-24 year olds they have in their membership is that many people have multiple FB accounts, for personal reasons maybe but also marketers who need to be able to interact from multiple “personas” relating to the campaigns they are running.
    Another popular digital metric that is often misunderstood is the visitor count in Analytics – Google may report a given number of unique visitors but that doesn’t take into account that some of those people may have visited your website before, just not recently.

  • Yoana Velikova 14 Jun 2017 at 9:06 am

    Mark Ritson once again proving to be a total a*se with no knowleged of what digital metrics are and what they serve for. His only aim is to shock readers with stupid stories with the sole purpose of keeping his paycheck from Marketing Week. I am unsubscribing from you guys because I find every article of Ritson’s pure crap.

  • Amy Sharples 14 Jun 2017 at 10:14 am

    Mark does have some good points but his total lack of digital knowledge really undermine his arguments.

  • John Billett 14 Jun 2017 at 10:21 am

    No wonder he lost the deabate. Incorrect analysis compounded by inappropriate parallels with men’s parts is a complete turn off and misses the fundamental point. If users of digital media don’t want to pay for valid research they can’t complain about what they get for free

  • Julian Pratt 14 Jun 2017 at 10:38 am

    Is your data going to change what you are doing?
    If its not affecting a decision, its just a vanity metric.

    Well done on the penile metaphor, elegantly crafted and multi-layered.

  • Kirk Gillis 14 Jun 2017 at 11:59 am

    As the owner of an agency in an emerging market, we have both digital and non-digital clients. I would be very interested to see a correlation of the comments with the commentator’s background, traditional vs digital. Despite the limitations in some of the data and metrics from digital, particularly with Facebook, isn’t it clear that at least digital provides metrics where others provide none? What metrics do you get from outdoor? If you are in a advanced market, you will get fairly accurate data on cars that past, and possibly average persons per car. But how do you then measure ad impressions that they may or may not have seen? Its a formula, a proxy, at best, and because its the best available, its accepted. Isn’t that also true for Digital metrics? The truth is metrics are far from perfect, regardless if digital or traditional. It is up to the marketers and the agencies to understand these limitations and make informed decisions. I can’t stand articles like this that make such grandiose claims as “digital metrics are bullshit”, never mind that the author does so by comparing advertising metrics with measuring his penis every morning. Shouldn’t the dialogue be about how to improve the metrics, whether digital or traditional? Would that be time better spent? Facebook is here to stay, Google is here to stay, digital is here to stay, and the debate should’t be about what is or isn’t bullshit, but instead be about recognizing limitations of metrics, regardless of channel, and finding ways to address those limitations so better decisions can be made.

  • dinger 14 Jun 2017 at 12:15 pm

    the entire definition , history and fundamentally flawed perspective of marketing in one sentence –

    mine’s bigger than yours

  • Michael 14 Jun 2017 at 12:18 pm

    Great article – inappropriately correct as always, Mark. We need to acknowledge that digital metrics from different media suppliers really can’t be compared without a fair amount of skepticism. We need all digital media suppliers to adopt the same standards for metrics. Then we, as an industry, will be able to correctly define those metrics.

  • Tim Hammond 14 Jun 2017 at 12:43 pm

    Ah, the classic reply of modern youth – you are saying something I disagree with, so I’m going to ignore you and stop talking to you. Why not campaign to have the magazine shut down whilst you are at it?

  • Jason Chastain 14 Jun 2017 at 4:52 pm

    Enjoyed Ritson’s article. There is a following of Millennial Marketing Grads who have been taught that Digital anything is the golden unicorn…because they don’t yet watch TV themselves (though the ones married with children are already showing big growth in TV viewing like their older fellows from earlier generations.)
    The issue at hand I encounter is comparable to one in law enforcement: Police (in America) have long complained about the “CSI effect”, even teaching it in Criminal Justice courses now. The “CSI effect” being coined from the CSI TV show where the CSI team gathers perfect DNA, finger prints, and the smoking gun on every criminal they put away, and they do it in 24 hours. So modern (American) jurors have come to expect this, and attend real court, do not see DNA proof, and acquit the criminal. Meanwhile, the real police need 6 months outsourcing DNA to an FBI lab, if they even get any. Big perceptual difference in the jurors minds and reality.
    So too, in marketing, we have digital users around the world now trained to look for metrics and some sort of connective proof that makes them totally believe a customer looked at a 2″ x 3″ inert box of text and bought their product. But the emotionally compelling advertisement they saw 3 times a week this month had no provable impact upon the viewer psyche. So TV is what they tell the CMO they want to cut. Disconnect.

  • Natalie Mott 14 Jun 2017 at 6:12 pm

    Agree that there are a lot of meaningless stats that a digital marketer can measure and become distracted by, but this reads as if ALL digital metrics are nonsense. Surely core metrics such as traffic and conversion rate are still worth monitoring? And if not, what’s the alternative?

  • Paul D Hauck 15 Jun 2017 at 1:58 am

    I have to agree that digital metrics, and an awful lot of analog marketing metrics too, are a huge mess. But it’s worth noting the difference between accuracy and precision – they may not be entirely accurate, but if they’re consistent and precise then the change in these bullshit measures can, in fact be useful.

    But it takes a steady hand and some adult supervision to know what you can and cannot get out of the huge mish-mosh of data.

    And, of course, Sturgeon’s Law – “90% of everything is crap.’

  • Gordon Hogg 15 Jun 2017 at 10:05 pm

    It’s not about the size of the wand, it’s all about the digital magician!

  • Alan Perkins 16 Jun 2017 at 5:44 pm

    Much though I enjoy browsing your column, I think you should avoid mass debating in public until you’re a lot better at it …

  • Dave Curtis 18 Jun 2017 at 1:01 pm

    Another week, another Ritson rant against digital. I don’t think anyone believes the metrics are all they are cracked up to be, but you make out like people just shouldn’t bother with digital any more!

  • Stewart Pearson 18 Jun 2017 at 5:53 pm

    Mark is to be applauded to provoke this debate. Most of these comments miss his point. For years I presented digital metrics, testing and optimization to global clients. At best we explained what’s happening and (sometimes) why. CMOs ask two different questions. What if? How does this impact my marketing investment planning? What’s next? What impact does this have on my predicted business outcomes: sales, profitability, stock value? We now have the rich data, technology and analytics power to answer these questions. I could have said ‘AI’ but some of the statistical techniques are decades old. I have two questions. Is Marketing ready for the proven science that works in other sectors of life and business? And does the marketing services sector want to find the truth when it is profiting from the fragmentation?

  • Jennifer L Anton 18 Jun 2017 at 7:22 pm

    I’m normally a Ritson fan, but he’s obviously frustrated by the marketing digital love affair. I most often agree with him, we need to ensure integration and not fall in love with the channel itself. It’s about what you do with all of the channels that your consumer interacts with in order to engage them and get them to love your brand.

    This article and it’s aggressive and inappropriate tone actually really turn me off paying attention to him. You can be objective, educated and get your point across without these horrible metaphors. I have no idea why he would think it was appropriate to use this in a presentation to thousands of people or to a crowd of a few.

    I often share Ritson articles with colleagues and superiors. Here is one I wouldn’t share.

    I’d respect his opinion a lot more without the inappropriate male metaphors.

    Do over, Ritson.

  • Gemma 19 Jun 2017 at 10:09 am

    Another reason for Facebook not accurately being able to record its users and why there seems to be more people using Facebook than actually exist is, as already mentioned for this babbling idiot is, people have multiple accounts and as for his point about 15-24 year olds using Facebook and that there are 800,000 more using Facebook at this age than actually exist, this is because there are 5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14 year olds al using Facebook with fake dates of birth to state that they are 18! So to the dumb pr!ck who wrote this article and argued stupidly without any actual thought or research or experience in the work of these sites, has no valid case or argument and no actuall point.

  • Al Cervic 19 Jun 2017 at 11:51 am

    Great read as usual Mr Ritson…. clearly it was a debate, so i am pretty sure you were required to be one eyed. I amused at all these people quick to point out that the quantifiable reason there are more accounts than people is due to fake accounts, wow thats just added a how new level of credibility to the platforms analytics and shite data!

  • Helix Ruler 19 Jun 2017 at 1:11 pm

    But does Mr Ritson pay close attention to the page views when he publishes these lame articles?

  • Natalie Baker 19 Jun 2017 at 3:58 pm

    The irony of this article clearly being that its inappropriate and disgusting metaphor is a ploy for cheap attention. Marketing Week might see a bump in metrics for this piece that’s high on shock value and meaningless personal anecdote while low on meaningful analysis, but the negative impact of this article could only have been foreseen by good judgment. Unsubscribing.

  • Joseph Talcott 19 Jun 2017 at 9:44 pm

    Perhaps Mark Ritson’s penis analogy was misguided. Although I was not able to attend this session, I would guess that more than 50% of the audience did not have one. This might have influenced the vote on the debate.

    Nevertheless, his points are valid. Digital can measure almost anything in its environment. But just because something can be measured, does not automatically make it relevant. Maybe the marketers in the room recognised this truth. Because it is something we have been doing for years, i.e. using “metrics” to sell a product, regardless of its real relevance to the customer.

    Beginning in 1895, Ivory Soap boasted “99 44⁄100% Pure”, without much about why this would be beneficial. We often see “100% natural” on products. Is that good? After all, Arsenic is 100% natural. “Four out of five dentists agree . . .” But are they right? “More than twice the Iron of ordinary supplements”. Is that better?

    Media metrics are step-metrics, one step removed from Marketing’s real metrics; sales, market share, profit, growth. Media metrics attempt to support a price/value proposition which enables the buying and selling of media. Connecting these metrics to business goals is what each marketer struggles to do. And that is true in all media. If we can demonstrate a tangible correlation between a reported media result and real business outcomes, then that metric is legitimate and valuable.

    Imagine you are driving from Sydney to Brisbane. You become lost and stop at a service station for help. “Let me get you a map”, says the cheerful attendant. He presents you with a beautiful map of Scotland. “This is extraordinarily interesting”, you say, “but not useful at all”. Many, many media metrics, digital and others, can be that map of Scotland.

  • Steve Kirstein 20 Jun 2017 at 5:28 pm

    I see the old “SEX! – now that I’ve got your attention’ ploy is still being used…

    That said, despite the point the author is putting out there (heh), it too misses what ought to be the real point of marketing metrics, digital or otherwise:

    What business outcomes are you looking to have?
    Did it provide those? At what cost? Was it worth the investment versus alternatives?

  • Jill Brennan 21 Jun 2017 at 3:56 am

    Thanks Mark for the article. Some good points and I agree that it has got a bit overblown with use of digital metrics. Big picture stats that you quoted from Facebook don’t mean much not only because they aren’t accurate but also because it doesn’t help decide if Facebook is the right platform. Knowing what to use and when to use it count for more than throwing around lots of numbers.

    But measurements are a good way to keep score of whether what you’re doing is working or not. I think its best to pick a few key metrics and then use them to compare your own performance rather than against others.

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