Facebook caught with its hand in the first party data jar (again)
Facebook is again under fire this week as unsealed documents from a 2018 lawsuit show they were aware that their audience estimating tools were inflating potential reach on their platform. In a nutshell:
In early 2018 Facebook estimated that removing duplicate accounts would cause a 10% drop in potential reach, per the unsealed filing. While Facebook management rejected an employee’s suggestion to change the language the tool showed to advertisers, declining to swap out the words “people” and “reach” for the (more accurate) term “accounts” — on the grounds that “people-based marketing was core to Facebook’s value proposition”.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to marketers. In recent years, Facebook has made efforts to cull duplicate accounts and encourage businesses, for example, to create business pages rather than personal accounts in a business’s name, while also linking business manager to the personal accounts of those accessing it rather than a shared login.
At the same time, Facebook has gone to great lengths to make third party tracking of activity on their network more difficult. A few years ago, it was easy to add ad server tags to validate numbers on Facebook campaigns, but today it’s not an option for most brands.
This all highlights a much larger issue with digital media. At times, our industry feels a little like the TV show Whose Line Is It Anyways, which Drew Carey would famously introduce as somewhere that everything was made up and that the points don’t matter. Being able to apply a strategic and critical filter to the numbers we see is a much more important skill than being able to make snap judgments from basic metrics.
Why? Both people and digital marketing are complicated and most of the metrics to measure both are noise. Answering a question like which banner creative is most effective based on CTR is at best a reflection of the tiny audience intentionally clicking them and at worst a crapshoot. Run that campaign back three times and the chances are you get different results with each roll of the dice. In a data-driven world, everyone wants to make smart, informed decisions, but is something better than nothing if it’s essentially random?
As marketers, we need to dive deeper for more meaningful insights while also making an effort to ask more important questions. And that includes the uncomfortable ones, like is this platform possibly pumping up its numbers to make a campaign look better? Did my ad cause a sale or was it simply correlated with a sale? And who are these people spending minutes interacting with engagement display ads, anyway?
Facebook’s reach isn’t accurate just like its video views weren’t previously, and we can expect the company will continue to deceive us. But we can also accept the combined reach of Facebook and Instagram is massive and a distortion of 10% should not have a significant impact on our strategic thinking if we are approaching these numbers critically from the start.