Is Facebook Making Up Audience Estimates?

What does Facebook know that the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t?


The social giant is claiming its Ads Manager can potentially reach 41 million 18-to 24s within the country, even though the Census Bureau only counted 31 million 18- to 24s last year.

What’s more, Facebook says its ad tool could possibly reach 60 million 25-to-34s and 61 million 35-49s, even though the Bureau estimates that there were only 45 million and 61 million of each group last year.

Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser spotted the problem after reading about similar discrepancies in the Australian trade publication AdNews last week.

Facebook has apparently been claiming a reach of 1.7 million more 16-to 39s than exist in that country.

What gives?

We know Facebook has a history of overstating some metrics and miscalculating others. Last year, the Association of National Advertisers said the fact that Facebook had overestimated video viewing for two years was “troubling.”

For its part, Facebook blamed the issue on a bug in Page Insights.

In this most recent case, the tech titan seems to be sticking by its figures.

“Reach estimations are based on a number of factors, including Facebook user behaviors, user demographics, location data from devices, and other factors,” the company said in a statement.

“They are designed to estimate how many people in a given area are eligible to see an ad a business might run … They are not designed to match population or census estimates,” it added.

That’s news to the agency executives Wieser spoke to.

“The gap between Facebook and Census figures is not widely known,” Wieser asserts in a note to clients this week.

So what happens now?

Wieser, at least, doesn’t expect the latest revelations to convince many advertisers to stop throwing money at Facebook.

Yet as the company continues to wade into original content, Facebook's measurement issues "will help traditional TV sellers justify existing budget shares and … restrain Facebook’s growth in video ad sales on the margins.”

Wieser also predicts Facebook’s funny math bodes well for third-party measurement firms, like comScore and Nielsen, that big advertisers will increasingly rely.

5 comments about "Is Facebook Making Up Audience Estimates?".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 7, 2017 at 7:25 a.m.

    The fact that FB has been getting away with this sort of nonsense indicates that a great many non-branding digital advertisers are clueless about "audience dynamics" and probably not very sophisticated media users. Now that savvier TV-type advertisers are finally doing their homework regarding digital media---what took them so long?---they are uncovering the dubious math and tabulating systems and will not accept them for digital video audience measurements as these newer platforms develop original content and seek ad support. Sorry, FB, the days of smoke and mirror metrics are over.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, September 7, 2017 at 8:28 p.m.

    fbeast is facing even bigger (russia) problem.

  3. John Grono from GAP Research, September 7, 2017 at 11:52 p.m.

    Very true Ed.

    Just to let you know that this issue only pertains to FB's internal systems and reporting.

    Fortunately wise minds in the IAB Australia's Measurement Council ensure that Nielsen's Digital Monthly Ratings (DRM) and the just launched Digital Content Ratings (DCR) which provide day-by-day audience data, don't fall foul of the most basic fact about audience measurement - that is, you can't reach more people than exist.

    And a big call out to Arvind Hickman of Australia's AdeNews for reporting his findings.   I have offered to Arvind to validate his analysis and calculations as a precaution.

  4. Kim Putnam from Spectrum Reach, September 15, 2017 at 11 a.m.

    It seems that facebook is erroneously using a subjective interpretation of 'reach'. Reach is, by definition, total & unduplicated, so facebook's reach cannot exceed it's subscribers/users.  The statement "[FB reach estimates] are not designed to match population or census..." punctuates a previous posters observation about unsophisticated media-speak.  Dear facebook: math is not philosophical.

  5. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, September 25, 2017 at 2:06 p.m.

    Please listen to yesterday's (Sunday, 09.24) edition of "Le  Show" hosted by Harry Shearer.  
    [It is available as a podcast, including on iTunes.]  Shearer does MediaPost justice by his "Reading From The Trades" segment in which this article is quoted extensively.  

    I go further than Ed Papazian's Comment.  Facebook's reported seeming confusion is not "nonsense."  It's either non-accreditable ignorance or non-accreditable fraud.  To the MRC ...
    The whole world is watching!  And to confuse a total audience estimate with a US Census Bureau population estimate is horrifically jejune.  

    I hope Ed is correct and that the days of smoke and mirrors are over.

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