The inconvenient truth about Facebook’s user numbers

Research shows Facebook has a “potential reach” of 7.8 million people aged between 18 and 24 in the UK, two million more than actually exist.


Facebook is rightly coming in for criticism again after it was accused of claiming to have more users than actually exist.

In the UK, for example, it claims to have a “potential reach” of 7.8 million people aged between 18 and 24 in the UK. Yet official figures from the Office of National Statistics show there are only 5.8 million in the country.

And this is not the only place where it has happened. Analysts Pivotal Research revealed that in the US, Facebook claims to be able to reach 41 million people in that age group. Official data shows there are only 31 million people that age living in the country.

Meanwhile, in Australia, AdNews found Facebook claimed to reach 1.7 million more people aged 16 to 39 than live there. In fact, its research shows that in a study of 12 countries, nine had large discrepancies equal to Facebook claiming an audience of 42 million more 20- to 29-year-olds than actually exist.

This is clearly a huge problem. Which Facebook has as usual dismissed. A spokesperson says that different methodologies are used to collect the data and that Facebook’s “potential reach” is not meant to match census data.

“Reach estimations are based on a number of factors, including Facebook user behaviours, user demographics, location data from devices, and other factors,” says a company spokesperson. “They are designed to estimate how many people in a given area are eligible to see an ad a business might run. They are not designed to match population or census estimates.”

While this might be true, these discrepancies are notable and even if the data is not meant to match census figures it should at least be a realistic representation of the local population. Even with people travelling into an area for work or holidays, Facebook’s “potential reach” seems way off the mark.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – TV is dead, long live Facebook TV

Facebook does not charge advertisers based on potential reach and so it will claim, as it did with previous measurement errors, that it won’t impact marketers too much. But this data clearly misrepresents the potential audience on Facebook, inflating how useful it can be in reaching a key demographic. If planners are moving money out of other media in an attempt to reach this younger audience on the back of this potential reach that is a problem.

Concerns around digital measurement, transparency and accountability have been growing this year. Procter & Gamble even went so far as to pull more than $100m in spend. Yet neither Facebook nor Google have seen much of a hit to their ad businesses.

This latest revelation will spur some interesting conversations between brands, their agencies and Facebook, but as has been shown time and again marketers are loathe to pull money out of the big digital players. More scrutiny is needed, but this latest error is likely to be more of an inconvenience for Facebook than a real hit to its ambitions.

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