Commentary

These Are Not The Droids You Are Looking For

From a New York Times interview of Facebook CMO and Vice President Alex Schultz: “When I asked how advertisers felt about paying to show ads to fake accounts, Mr. Schultz said, ‘What advertisers need to feel comfortable about are the actual results generated by our ad campaigns.’”

 

Nice try. In other words, Facebook can’t tell you what you got for your money, and if you don’t know, it’s your fault.

This would seem to be either A: the result of a narrow world view in which purchases only result from clicks on Facebook. Branding? What’s that? Or, B: a desperate attempt to duck a simple question. Or both.

Asking Facebook to provide an accurate reach measure is objectively reasonable. Why then is the company's answer so smarmy

It's a misdirection. The problem is that almost any purchase is the result of factors that cannot be provided or measured by an ad platform. These would include, for example, the formation of need, various stimuli from other media, preexisting perceptions regarding the category, competitive promotions, etc. In fact, the aspects that can’t usually be measured are more meaningful in the purchase equation than the ones that can be!

So, how can a brand be “comfortable” that a channel produced results? It’s a well-known problem.

In the industry, we address this problem with so-called multitouch attribution. We use various analytic methods that attempt to correlate purchase with media exposure or other factors, but all models depend on knowing how much reach went where. So for Facebook to simply defend its obviously flawed reach numbers by telling us to focus only on results is disingenuous, at best.

Why blow off such a clear question?  A positive reading would be that Facebook does not understand brand marketing.  However, Schultz, in addition to being the CMO, is also the vice president of analytics, and the problem he glossed over is fundamental to his biggest customers. We can be certain he understands brand marketing.

He could have said, “that is factored into the pricing,” or “we have eliminated so many of the fake users that it’s a rounding error,” or “we feel for you, and we are trying hard.” Instead, nada. No apology. No excuse. No explanation. No empathy. No admission.

Being a high-profile person in a high-profile interview, you can bet he had a message track, and some PR talent in his corner. That means he was speaking the official posture, so it’s not about him.

If all this was just another media company making a small PR gaffe, we could let it go. But it’s not just any media company, and it’s not a small matter. To dismiss a question about fake users with “let ‘em eat cake” rhetoric seems monumentally arrogant.

If you are new to all this, you should know that the fake users are bots: computer programs pretending to be your friends.  Per Facebook’s own information, the company deleted in the neighborhood of 4 billion fake users in the past year. That’s the internet-connected population of the planet.

Since purges of that magnitude are regular, someone must be adding fake users just as fast. Facebook shows ads to those fake users, so Facebook makes money from the bots, but the bots don’t. Instead, bots’ raison d’etre is to pump content viewership for cash. That’s what they do. Anyone can buy likes and shares (on any social net) from the owners of these bots, and promote content. For example, look here if you would like to buy 1,000 “shares” for $40.

Does that particular company (picked at random) do it with bots? Gee, I don’t know. Maybe you can ask that familiar-looking stranger who just sent you a friend request.

Anyway, these are the fake users the Times asked about, and Facebook’s response was basically, “These are not the droids you are looking for!”  Fortunately, the Force is not strong with them.

In the end, Facebook’s customers -- or certainly its brand customers -- want to know how many people (not machines) saw their ad. If the error is small, we can let that go. But, off by billions?

Why, just last month, the TV industry association convinced the Media Rating Council to drop Nielsen’s certification for TV reach measurement. The reason? A measurement variance that pales by comparison to Facebook’s billions of fake users. So the TV industry self-immolates while Facebook, soaked in gasoline, walks blithely past open flames.

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