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How to fix the Facebook problem

14 November 2016

In  the wake of Facebook's video measurement blunder, ISBA's Mark Finney outlines the options for a transparent solution

The Facebook video viewing measurement debacle has had the advertising industry up in arms, perhaps unsurprisingly. I myself have made disgruntled sounds for others to bite on, but does all this sound and fury signify anything?

Some industry commentators think the issue has been overblown. The "average duration of video viewed" metric, they say, is just one of many and not necessarily a very important one for many advertisers, compared with CPA or overall campaign ROI. This may be true, but it rather misses the point.

Facebook's "math" mistake was not only unfortunate and embarrassing, it served as a reminder that no one is independently verifying Facebook's claimed audience numbers. This should be a source of great concern to all advertisers.

The vast majority of media in the UK is measured by the JICs (Joint Industry Currencies) which are managed by players from both the buy (IPA for agencies and ISBA for Advertisers) and sell (media vendor) sides.

Collectively the JICs: BARB (TV), RAJAR (radio), PAMCo (national readership), JICREG (regional readership) Route (outdoor), ABC (circulation), JICWEBS (web standards), and JICPOPS (population predictions) underpin the trading of £11.3bn of display (space and time) annually.

What are the options for measuring Facebook?

UKOM, the industry standard for digital media measurement is not a JIC, but a hybrid model, underwritten by the AOP and the IAB (sell side) and has board level representation also by the IPA and ISBA (buy side) but the research is conducted by an independent commercial partner (comScore).

UKOM provides a clear and objective view of online audience behaviour, scale and socio-demographics across the whole of the UK online, desktop PC, mobile and tablet market (including browsers and apps). Although UKOM cannot influence commercial negotiations between comScore and its customers, 90% of agencies and 75% of major publishers buy at least one product.

Despite its many strengths, it is only a partial representation of the market. The reason for this is cost, pure and simple.

To provide a full, all-digital JIC delivering "gold standard" JIC owned data (as the others do) would be incredibly expensive. All JICs compromise to an extent because of cost, on sample size, sophistication of methodology, data capture and frequency of delivery, but the data is always robust, independent and transparent and comparable across media types. The sheer complexity of the digital landscape means funding a full JIC would require significantly greater investment than the £5.8m currently spent on UKOM.

Although Facebook has thus far made little effort to engage with UKOM, nor have they helped comScore in the measurement of their properties (measurement of them is based on comScore's own panels), would it have made any difference to the recent problem if they had? Probably not, because:

- Like most of the JICs, UKOM measures audiences, not advertising. This is something which must be addressed in the near future.

- The vast majority of Facebook's video viewing is on mobile, but comScore's VideoMetrix (VMX) product has, up until now, measured only the desktop PC video audience. VMX mobile data won't be available until late Q4 2016.

Could Facebook's video-viewing be measured by BARB? According to Thinkbox, video viewing on Facebook accounted for 2.2% of total video in 2015 (in terms of time spent viewing per day) and it has undoubtedly grown its share since then. There have certainly been conversations between the two organisations, but the problems of bringing them together should not be underestimated:

- It would require Facebook to submit to be measured in the same way as broadcasters, which means being open to third-party verification. This is perhaps a non-starter?

- Facebook video is clearly not "TV" in the way we know it; there is no editorial context for the advertising - it is only remotely comparable to other channels measured by BARB.

- Is there really an appetite on the part of the owners to extend the credibility of the BARB brand to a company like Facebook? An interesting question.

JICWEBS provides approved industry agreed device agnostic metrics for video play measurement, (basically the tool kit for use by an auditor such as ABC) which are already in use by BARB. This is another viable option for measuring Facebook, should they choose to get involved. I really hope they do.

Of course, Facebook has been fantastically successful without third-party verification of their video metrics, recently reporting total advertising revenue growth of 63% to $6.24bn year on year. They could be forgiven for keeping calm and carrying on.

Pressure from advertisers might encourage them to think differently. The theme for this year's IAB Engage conference is Power and Choice. Advertisers certainly have the power to nudge Facebook towards third-party verification if they choose to use it. If they choose to leave things as they are, caveat emptor, as they say.

Mark Finney is the director of media and advertising at ISBA, the voice of British advertisers

This blog first appeared in Mediatel

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