Commentary

The Metrics Lesson Of Facebook? Walled Gardens Are The Future

In light of the Facebook IPO and Facebook’s plans to sell premium inventory via API, it’s worth pausing to take stock of Facebook metrics. It turns out, the metrics on Facebook are an example of a wider growing phenomenon in digital media: the metrics of silos.

Let’s start with Facebook -- and, for expediency, let’s start with The New York Times’nice rundown on the challenges advertisers face on making use of Facebook. I’ll point to three quotes from the piece that highlight critical differences for the metrics crowd:

1) Facebook ads are different from standard ads. As Darren Herman, chief digital media officer at the Media Kitchen, opines in the Times piece:  “Facebook’s a silo… it is very hard to understand the efficacy of what a Facebook like, or fan or follow is worth.”

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2) Facebook ads operate separately from the rest of the online universe. As the Times puts it, “Facebook is essentially a walled garden, so what users may do on the Web beyond Facebook — where they shop, what they read — isn’t available for advertisers who want to home in on people’s behavior.” If a Facebook ad leads a user to a Facebook page -- and not the advertiser’s own website -- then it’s Facebook who controls the data that measures the ad’s success.

3) Facebook isn’t forthcoming with data. Again, to quote the Times: “As with all advertising, companies want to know what they’re getting for their money, and with Facebook, the answer isn’t clear… Facebook is much more reluctant than Google and other online sites to share that information with advertisers.” (Although, to be fair, Facebook is ramping up its data offerings to brands.)

To sum up: Facebook ads are a siloed universe on an ultra-popular platform that’s not forthcoming with data. That, interestingly, sounds surprisingly similar to Apple’s early iAds program. Consider, for instance, the disappointment voiced by Robin Steinberg, senior vice president of print investment and activation at Starcom MediaVest, in 2010: “It is really frustrating in terms of the lack of data [Apple is] willing to give… We're not getting the answers we need to continue sponsorships. I don't have any information on time spent, engagement, or anything that's going to help." If you read through the trades two years ago, you’d see that Steinberg was hardly a lone voice in that opinion.

Of course, Apple products are another example of a wildly popular walled garden that operates differently from the rest of the advertiser universe. And as a walled garden, Apple keeps the power of data, largely, in its own hands.

As the barriers to entry for creating new media platforms -- from Facebook to Pinterest to Twitter -- the ability to create entirely new formats that live outside of the standard advertising ecosystem only becomes easier. In other words, walled gardens become increasingly simpler to create.

This means two things for the world of metrics. First, it means that the new world of metrics is as much about bargaining hard for rights to data ownership as it is about mathematical analysis. Second, it means that we’ll need to create an ever-increasing number of metrics models that don’t fit the norm. That’s a real challenge -- one that means building new technologies, working with new kinds of data, and pivoting on the old models very quickly. It’s a job that’s almost as hard, as, say, juggling a lot of unique friends on your Facebook feed. That’s the future we’ll all have to learn to “like.”

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