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.