Facebook’s Advertising Data Doesn’t Quite Line Up with Reality

Have you ever sat and taken a proper look at Facebook’s claims concerning the reach of advertising on the platform and thought it seems somewhat optimistic? While the platform is certainly a valuable tool for advertisers and is undoubtedly effective in expanding the reach of your brand and attracting new business, it does appear that we were right to take their claims with a little pinch of salt, at least according to the recent findings of American analytical firm Pivotal.

The major problem - and a major one it certainly is - is that Facebook’s claims regarding their reach within a certain market or demographic appear to be downright impossible, as they assert they can reach figures which exceed those which actually exist according to official census data.

For example, Facebook claims to be able to reach 7.8 million users between the ages of 18 and 24 in the UK, while the Office of National Statistics says that only 5.8 million people exist within that age group throughout the entire country (as of 2016).

Over the pond in the US the issue is similarly prevalent; data from the 2016 US Census places the number of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 at 31 million; Facebook claims a potential reach within that demographic of 41 million. Among 25-34-year-olds in the US the same is apparent; Facebook claims a reach of 60 million people, while the census reports 45 million.

That’s just a couple of notable examples, but Pivotal have said that the discrepancy is apparent throughout not just the UK and US, but also Australia, Ireland, and France, at the very least.

Brian Wieser, a senior analyst at Pivotal, commented in a research note that the issue has not been widely known among ad executives, but now it has been brought forward the revelation may increase demand for third-party measurement services. He said, “While Facebook’s measurement issues won’t necessarily deter advertisers from spending money with Facebook, they will help traditional TV sellers justify existing budget shares and could restrain Facebook’s growth in video ad sales on the margins.”

Facebook have already been facing increased scrutiny from advertisers as of late, largely driven by a combination of measurement errors regarding the platform’s video arm and the prevalence of fake news sites appearing alongside legitimate ads, which is sure to have a negative effect if an affiliation is made between the two. From a business point of view, this is a bad time for such revelations to come to light.

“This is yet another self-reporting error by Facebook that doesn’t help it re-establish confidence with advertisers and the market,” commented Michael Karg, group chief executive of media and advertising auditing firm Ebiquity. “They have been trying to improve things like transparency, but once again they are having issues.”

Facebook have since released a statement regarding the apparent issue, in which they asserted that reach estimates did not match census data by design as the given numbers 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”.

The company added, “This is just an estimator and campaign planning tool. It’s not a business’ actual reach or campaign reporting, and is not billable.”

While I see their point to some degree (these figures are stated as estimates after all), such a wide gap between their given figures and the number of people that actually exist gives the impression of a desire to mislead for financial gain. After all, the fact remains that an estimate is inherently flawed when those behind it know that it is unattainable. Facebook should make urgent steps to correct this discrepancy, or they may find themselves even further out of favour in the eyes of their advertising partners.

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