The Zuckerberg In The Henhouse

Here’s how this will work: I will begin by talking about the latest Facebook fiasco, and will through my tone and caustic interpretation of events prejudice you, the jury, on the subject of the company’s moral character.

Then I’ll introduce you to someone far more knowledgeable, forgiving and probably realistic than me.  

But I get to go first: as The Wall Street Journal reported late last week, Facebook has acknowledged misrepresenting the amount of engagement -- as measured by average seconds viewed -- of video ads in its newsfeed. Basically, before calculating the average time of engagement, it first discarded all views lasting less than three seconds. This is approximately like calculating the average velocity of a major-league pitcher by first discarding all his pitches that didn’t reach 95 mph.



The resulting metric will be both highly impressive and meaningless.  

The problem has been addressed -- but, excuse me, is this not just soooooo Facebook? They should have a thumbs-up button, and thumbs-down button and a crossed-fingers button for all the many times in the past 10 years in which they have offered something to advertisers, publishers and users that was either short-lived or not true.

The list includes secret breaches of privacy, the like-button “organic” newsfeed presence bait-and-switch, a clandestine PR smear campaign against Google, the fine-print assertion of ownership of all user content in perpetuity and (as predicted here first) unilateral changes in the Instant Stories partnerships with publishers dramatically diminishing the bonanza of new reach they had been promised.

So permit me to wonder if the bogus engagement metric -- aimed at scooping up vast swaths of online advertising, especially in mobile -- wasn’t just the latest example of what card players refer to as “sharp play.” It is not a compliment. On the contrary, it is something that can get you ejected from the card room.

So when I learned of this issue, the first thing I did was call Bettina Hein, CEO of Pixability, the Boston-based online video-targeting and analytics shop. I know Bettina because I am a company advisor. Please note: I have a business relationship with them. As you see, though, nothing that follows is any kind of endorsement or puffery. There are plenty of folks in the video-analytics racket -- Omniture and Moat Analytics among them -- but here’s the key thing: 

I don’t have the cell phone number for their founders.

So, Bettina, is this just the most repulsive Facebook news ever? 

Bettina: “No.”

“Somehow they took the engagement of people who watch videos over 3 seconds -- which is when they start billing advertisers -- and attributed to everybody that was using video. I don’t think there’s a conspiracy there.”

Oh, man. Couldn’t she have offered something dismissive and incendiary, maybe involving profanity? Alas, no. The reason she’s not too suspicious is that Facebook video advertisers don’t pay for a view that is abandoned before 3 seconds. Therefore, of all the ads actually paid for by advertisers, the average engagement time they’ve been trumpeting is correct.

“Advertisers,” she said, “definitely weren’t billed more.”

On the other hand, in the past two years, as it has gone head to head versus YouTube in the video-ad business, Facebook has lured a lot of people into the showroom with the big fat engagement numbers. This, Bettina concedes, may have earned them more business. On the other other hand, she adds, Facebook’s ad products and sales success have forced Google into innovating its offering. So the duopoly is doing better for advertisers than the previous status quo.

Like I said. She is an infuriatingly steady cannon, bolted firmly to the deck. The thing is, I happen to know that she has been telling everyone who will listen about the danger of the twin Facebook/Google walled gardens, into which much advertiser data flows and almost none returns. Their targeting is excellent and their reach enormous, but attribution and user data is almost impossible to claw free. 

In fact, as reported by MediaPost, 58% of respondents in a recent survey of agencies and marketers said data access and ownership was their top priority. Unfortunately, approximately the same percentage declared their fealty to the parties who provide so much reach and efficiency. This apparent paradox was explained by the study’s underwriter, John Nardone of Flashtalking, as “Stockholm Syndrome.”

Hahahahaha. Sounds about right to me. Or as Bettina Hein would certainly never phrase it, the food tastes like shit, but the portions are so large!

At the moment, Google and Facebook have such a vast market share they have no incentive to do anything to undercut their own proprietary offerings. I’d argue that a rising tide lifts all ships, and with half the video spending still allocated to TV, more standardization and transparency could pay rich dividends.

They say -- and I reckon they know more about their business than I do -- that 80% of the very un-theoretical current market is just fine. But let’s assume that the people paying the bills won’t be willing to eat shit forever.

“The lesson for advertisers,” Bettina finally offers, “is you have to look at exactly what you’re getting. And you get what you pay for. You have to have some third-party verification.”

Her disappointingly un-vulgar analogy is the fox in the henhouse. All right. That’ll do. I just wish she were a little less charitable toward the fox.

6 comments about "The Zuckerberg In The Henhouse".
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  1. Peter Daboll from Ace Metrix, September 26, 2016 at 12:10 p.m.

    This isn't just a Facebook problem.  True, Facebook's metric was misleading and inacurrate.  But there are dozen's of these quasi-fraudlent metrics and analytical techniques that exaggerate the true impact of an ad or a campaign. From attribution to brand lift or even unduplicated reach,  Its a culture of lying and strechted-truths to generate inflated performance.  And its not just pushlishers and ad nets that are guilty. Advertisers are guility too wanting flaunt inflated ROI numbers around their management. If you want the truth, then be prepared to deal with results that aren't that complimentary.  Face it, not all ads are good. Transparency is the only way performance will actually improve-- covering it up won't help. The big guys, like Google, Facebook or AOL need to step up as you suggest and call out these misleading industry practices. What we need is a big whistle, and lots of blowers to facilitate change. 

  2. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC replied, September 26, 2016 at 1:30 p.m.

    I don't know if this was intentional or just a typo, but I love your term, "pushlishers". Sorta says it all, right?

  3. Garrett Donaldson from JKR Advertising & Marketing, September 26, 2016 at 3:54 p.m.

    "Figures don't lie, but liars can figure." Most often attributed to Mark Twain. But there is one figure that doesn't lie, and that's sales. Media and agencies can trot out all sorts of statistics, but the one stat they can't fudge is sales. 

    Sales is the only meaningful measure, if it ain't sellin' it ain't workin'.

  4. David Scardino from TV & Film Content Development replied, September 26, 2016 at 5:04 p.m.

    Unless of course the product itself is a "dog" that no advertising, no matter how great, could save.

  5. Dyann Espinosa from IntraStasis, September 28, 2016 at 6:13 a.m.

    David Scardino. Could you give us an example of what you are referring to?

  6. David Scardino from TV & Film Content Development replied, September 28, 2016 at 6:54 p.m.

    I'll give you one from my years at Y&R ('69-'74): Vote toothpaste. Spent millions relaunching the brand but it still gave many users canker sores. The brand was allowed to quietly die (at least in the U.S.) Another one, before my time in the business would probably be Edsel.

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