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

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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.”

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10 questions with…. MediaLad

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In an attempt to showcase the personalities of the people behind the media and marketing sector, The Drum speaks to individuals who are bringing something a little different to the industry and talks to them about what insights and life experience they can offer the rest of us. This week's 10 Questions are put to the most anonymous of industry commentators – MediaLad

What was your first job?

Baker.

Why did you get into advertising?

I’ve always had a business or economic brain and marketing was the most attractive area for me given the psychology and quantitative aspects of it.

What’s the worst buzzword in the industry?

Transparency, leverage, gap – take your pick.

Leverage – makes it sound like you’re using someone or something to get around a problem not solve it.

Gap – basically means someone isn’t doing their job.

Transparency – no one knows what transparency actually is until they try to do it and fail miserably at it.

If you could improve Twitter – how would you go about it?

Tweetups with people near you or a gaming element to it a la HQ.

Which industry event do you have to attend every year?

The IAA Xmas ball – The biggest celebration of media in the calendar year.

What’s the most surprising thing you have learned about the ad industry since working within it?

The most surprising thing is how little the so-called knowledgeable industry experts get to grips with both sides of the buy or sell side. The fact that they don’t know that not all third-party data can be bought on premium publications (even before GDPR). The fact that some technology does not interact with others in the most fluid way, yet expect a “transparency” that just will not be there unless there is a drastic change. The fact no one even talks about that astounds me. The fact they’re so focused on the buzzwords and chasing followers or awards, and not actually fixing the problems pisses me off.

Who is the one person in advertising whose advice everyone should listen to – other than yourself?

The guys at Avocet for digital buying, namely Ezra Pierce and Simon Critchley.

Who or what did you have posters of on your wall while growing up?

Eric Cantona, and House Record Labels.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

There’s a couple. From a life perspective, it’s about how much is in your control. 70% of your life is outside of your control. Stuff that happens to others in your life like your partner, parents, and loved ones. The stuff they do to annoy or delight you. 20% is what you’re in control of including life choices and what you do for fun, work, spare time etc. The rest is just pure luck and chance. For that reason only take time on the 20% as you really don’t have a lot of say on the rest.

What do you think ‘Media Lad’ means to the industry and what has being him meant to yourself?

I mean it started as a joke for the company I used to work for. I handed my notice in and had a bit of time, Twitter was new to me and I used it as a bit of a platform to promote jokes in my career that turned out to be common problems faced by everyone. It’s turned into this mad Banksy type character that (most) people enjoy, and want to unmask. I am honestly so humbled by that. Others hate it, for calling out their shit, but you know what… it’s not about who I am but it’s about what should be the “right” way to do media or your job. Bring perspective and enthusiasm to a job that really doesn’t save any lives or do anything meaningful in the world apart from raise awareness for certain companies/products. I try not to raise my own profile as (believe it or not) I’m not that type of guy that wants a headache to appear on stage. I’m busy working for my clients and that’s what motivates me.

More entries from 10 Questions With… can be found here.

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Online advertising has alienated our most valuable asset – the consumer

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It’s an understatement to say things have changed since I started my career in publishing 34 years ago, and mostly for the right reasons. The industry has moved on and some of those less palatable institutional barriers have been broken down. Yet there are certain industry behaviours that are having a real impact on original content creators, and they are so often borne from preventable consequences.

In many instances, these could be negated through the reapplication of ‘guiding principles’ that have perhaps been lost along the way.

It’s time we took a look back to make sense of what’s in front

The media industry has always been a sum of its parts, with different skills and disciplines working, mostly, in partnership. There was a sense you belonged to something special, and you knew you were directed by principles honed from many years of evolving media and advertising practices.

But it’s time to face the truth: today, consumers lack trust in digital advertising. In a quest for infinite online inventory, the crucial relationship between brand and consumer – that was built on shared values and respect – has become commoditised and jeopardised, quelling any desire for users to engage with ad campaigns. How have we got to a place where advertising that lives in the online world has all but alienated its most valuable asset – the consumer?

And no matter how many smart and inspiring examples of diversification and new monetisation models we see emerging, for original content creators, a base level of advertising remains essential.

There needs to be a change in behaviour

Many promises have been made to re-evaluate advertising practices and there’s an acknowledgement that quality and context matters. However, very little seems to have moved on and there remains limited evidence to suggest any measurable change in behaviour.

I’m not here to knock the technology that has enabled so much in modern life or the dominance of social media in which many users choose to consume news. Yet there is an obnoxious disparity around ‘standards’, accountability, and responsibility, and the right to compete fairly for advertiser funds that enable and sustain the creators of original quality journalism and content.

Despite all efforts to collaborate and support the industry’s wider call for greater parity, media owners with a long-established code of conduct and complete accountability for every single item present on their site continue to be at a disadvantage. Media organisations have always been defined by their transparent policies. So how is that an organisation like Facebook – that has such an impact and influence on the industry – is able to prosper and have a significant amount of revenue derived from online advertising, without being defined as a media business, and therefore does not need to adhere to any of the policies or codes of practice that is required by others?

As long as these organisations continue to be the principle benefactors from a type of advertising purchase behaviour, they have no motivation to change. It is only when we see a promised change in the advertisers’ behaviour, that the technology businesses themselves will be forced to re-examine their practices – meanwhile they will continue to enjoy all the spoils while residing outside of the union of all other media practitioners.

Driving better standards, and meaningful returns

As media owners, we continue to value the long-established trading partnerships centred on mutually defined policy and protocol, and relationships built on trust. These values matter.

This is a call to advertisers to check this current commodity driven behaviour, to take a moment to reflect, and work with publishers, as partners. But we also need to be sure that in striving for this goal we aren’t diluting standards, and the desire to improve accountability doesn’t just find us looking to provide a definition around practices that would otherwise be deemed as sub-standard.

Within the industry, we have in place numerous compliance guidelines. The IAB has been tireless in its efforts to bring the industry together to agree on a variety of advertising technology compliance standards. But what use are these if there is no accountability and seemingly no process to enforce compliance? While other established media channels have flight checkers in place – for both creative compliance and copy integrity – with all this wonderful technology, why does it not exist online?

And what about the extent of these standards? Premium publishers operate to much higher standards than laid out by these bodies, and always have done. They are self-regulated and they are accountable. And while I strongly support the adoption of universal standards for the good of the industry, it doesn’t change the fact they represent something that is significantly less than what we can actually provide.

At AOP, we’re committed to surfacing these challenges and we are striving to find practical answers, recommendations, and examples of best practice to help cement the future of advertising and publishing. But we must all commit to win back the trust of the consumer and return to a place of integrity – and continue to succeed as an industry I have always been proud to be part of.

Richard Reeves is managing director at AOP

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‘Project Dragonfly’: Google’s rumoured censor-friendly launch in China

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It’s common knowledge that Google, as present as it is in our daily lives, does not enjoy the same ubiquity in China, and hasn’t done for eight years.

Leaked meeting minutes from the corporation, however, suggest that could be about to change.

Codenamed ‘Project Dragonfly’, the search giant is allegedly in the midst of a bid to launch in China in an iteration that would play ball with Beijing’s hardline censorship policies.

According to a transcript from a meeting led by Google’s search engine chief, Ben Gomes, ambitions for Dragonfly were to reach “the next billion” users and launch within “six to nine months”.

Gomes said that China was “arguably the most interesting market in the world today”, according to the transcript published yesterday by The Intercept, said to have taken place on July 18.

“It’s not just a one-way street. China will teach us things that we don’t know,” Gomes told staff. “We have built a set of hacks and we have kept them.

"Overall I just want to thank you guys for all the work you have put in.

"We have to be focused on what we want to enable," Gomes says. "And then when the opening happens we are ready for it."

According to the South China Morning Post, Project Dragonfly has previously been reported as the codename for a censored search app specifically for the Chinese market.

Blacklisting any websites related to human rights, democracy, religion and any other issues deemed sensitive by the Chinese government, the country’s internet censorship laws are considered the most extensive and advanced in the world.

In the meeting, Gomes reportedly acknowledged that trade wars between the US and China were causing difficulties in negotiations with Communist Party officials in Beijing, whose approval Google would need to launch the search engine.

Re-launching in China would open up a vast audience and a matched opportunity to scale its advertising operations globally, competing with Asia’s ad tech giants such as Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent.

Away from China, however, the move – which would be contributing to China’s hardline stance on free speech – could be seen as a far cry from the search giant’s original “don’t be evil” policy.

The reveal of the leaked transcript also comes following a reveal of Google’s efforts to cover up a Google+ data breach, which resulted in potential vulnerabilities to private data attached to 500K users.

As noted by Business Insider, side-by-side, these revelations set a worrying trend of a very powerful company acting in secrecy, and despite its efforts to appear the opposite, unethically.

Interested in hearing leading global brands discuss subjects like this in person?

Find out more about Digital Marketing World Forum (#DMWF) Europe, London, North America, and Singapore.

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