Don’t Believe the Metrics. Most Views on Social Platforms Are Fake.

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When print and broadcast media reigned, ad rates were based on a bit of make-believe. Granted, print “circulation” was a hard number, based on how many newspapers and magazines were printed, inked and distributed. But the “readership” tally was an optimistic estimate of how many people read each copy, and nobody could know which articles (and accompanying ads) readers actually saw. Radio and TV ratings were determined by even more esoteric audience assumptions--and who knows the percentage of people who took bathroom breaks during commercials.

Then along came the Internet, with all its promised metrics and measurements. Now you could know how many people visited a specific page, how long they stayed there, if they watched a video (and for how long), as well as their demographic and geographic information. You could finally buy and sell ads based on who was actually seeing them, rather than who might.

Or could you? Following in fake news’ footsteps, fake views have proliferated social metrics. None of these numbers are a truthful representation of what people are reading or watching online. Essentially, we’ve been duped.

Photo by  Charles  on  Unsplash

Photo by Charles on Unsplash

Take Facebook videos. Despite being able to accurately track stats by hosting video content on your site, Facebook convinced the industry to start uploading “native videos” to their platform. Mr. Zuckerberg justified the loss of ad revenue and website traffic by promising more eyeballs on your content. (When Facebook introduced video ads in 2014, the algorithm favoured their in-house video player,  making direct uploads more likely to autoplay on newsfeeds.)

Two years later, The Wall Street Journal exposed just how badly Facebook was fudging its “facts.” By not counting views lasting fewer than three seconds, they were forced to admit to overestimating viewing time by between 60 and 80 percent. This measurement error lasted for two years, undetected.

While Facebook claimed they hadn’t overcharged advertisers, the fake views scandal certainly weakened their sales pitch. Additionally, undercutting the whole “pivot-to-video” move made by digital media had failed to produce the expected revenue Facebook had promised, contributing to thousands of layoffs for publishers.

In 2017, Facebook was busted again, this time for inflating user and usage numbers. Given their unprecedented size and reach, it would seem unnecessary to exaggerate. Yet they still claimed millions more U.K. and U.S. users in desired age demographics than there were actual residents of the country in those age groups.

According to Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser, Facebook's Ads Manager was boasting of “a potential reach within the U.S. of 41 million 18 to 24-year-olds, 60 million 25 to 34-year-olds and 61 million 35 to 49-year-olds.”

However, U.S. Census data indicates last year there were a total of 31 million 18 to 24 year-olds, 45 million 25 to 34 year-olds and 61 million 35 to 49 year-olds living in the country.

Similarly, Facebook U.K. claimed it could reach 7.8 million 18 to 24-year-olds, even though there were only 5.8 million people that age living in the U.K. at the time. Facebook responded by stating their audience-reach estimates “are not designed to match population or census estimates.” Right.  

Making things even worse were subsequent “bugs” overstating organic reach for Facebook Pages and time spent on Instant Articles, which online media used to drive higher pageviews by publishing directly to Facebook rather than posting a link to their own sites.

Photo by  Charles  on  Unsplash

Photo by Charles on Unsplash

It’s not just Facebook who’s playing fast and loose with the metrics. Twitter was forced to make a similar confession in 2017, admitting it had overstated its monthly active user base by as much as two million for the previous three years. In 2018, they lost 9 million “users” in a crackdown on bots.

Which brings us to our other advertiser boogeyman. A whole bunch of bots are hiding under the Internet’s bed, gleefully messing up audience measurements. Online metrics are increasingly undermined by click fraud and click farms, where automated software programs pretending to be people jack up ad costs by creating fake impressions.

According to Ad Week, nonhuman traffic is the biggest concern of 78 percent of online advertisers--and no wonder. Experts estimate three-quarters of big-box ad clicks are fraudulent and that half of all online ads are never seen by a human. In 2016, security firm WhiteOps estimated ad fraud added up to US$7.2 billion in 2016 and the World Federation of Advertisers predicts that number could reach U.S. $50 billion by 2025.

For digital marketers, it’s time to go back to basics. When audience metrics were vague, we focused on driving sales, not so-called “views.” Big ad numbers are meaningless if you’re not focused on how to connect with Your Best Customer. So online or off, focus on your audience.