Industry experts call for more third-party verification on Facebook

The media industry weighs in on what Facebook owes its advertisers, and why critics may need to put down the pitchfork.
Facebook audience

The largest social networking company in the world recently admitted to several errors in its metrics reporting that have leaders across the ad industry calling for more oversight and third-party measurements.

Some of the errors announced this past month included over-reporting referrals to outside websites, miscalculating time spent on its Instant Articles feature, and double-counting repeat visitors to Facebook Pages. The admission was the second of its kind in three months — in August, Facebook disclosed that it had discovered a discrepancy in the reporting of video views that resulted in slightly inflated metrics for advertisers.

Many in the industry were quick to point out that the errors weren’t likely to affect anyone’s pocketbooks.

“Of the announced issues, only one potentially has an impact on paid media activity,” Claire Sweeney, managing director of Resolution Media, the search and social arm of PHD Canada, told MiC. The metric she was referring to was one on video players with misaligned audio potentially resulting in under-reporting.

“While we were alarmed to see a second restatement of metrics from Facebook in such a short time, from our perspective this current round of reporting issues raises limited cause for concern on the paid media side.”

The bigger issue, said Sweeney, was that of third-party verification. She was one of the many voices who said that the incident is an example of why more oversight from neutral third-parties is necessary on the platform.

“While there is no belief that these issues are a result of malicious intent, with the majority of every incremental digital dollar now going to Facebook and Google, a dangerous precedent of minimal true third-party measurement is being set on these platforms.”

That sentiment was echoed by Ian Hewetson, VP of client services at Eyereturn Marketing, who said advertisers should start demanding more transparency from Facebook.

“Of course advertisers should be empowered to ask for these things — they’re the ones paying for it,” Hewetson told MiC.

Unlike Sweeney, he sees the admissions as a slightly larger problem.

“I think some advertisers are rolling their eyes and saying ‘none of this is a big deal, Facebook is still delivering great results for us,’ and I’m sure that’s true,” he said, acknowledging that the metrics themselves weren’t “earth-shattering.”

But, Hewetson added, it may not be the results themselves but what they signify. “It’s a lack of confidence that an advertiser might have in the platform. You’re asking advertisers to believe without question what they’re saying. Then it comes, to admitting, ‘yes there’s some problems,’ and then down the road, ‘oh, there’s some more problems.’”

Facebook has already made moves to offer more accurate metrics moving forward, such as increased measurement and a new blog  to keep advertisers abreast of the network’s measurement and analytics practices (all announced in November when the company revealed the errors), but many including Hewetson have said Facebook could still do more.

Scott Stewart, head of strategy and managing director at Maxus Canada, strikes a middle ground in concern over the issues. Although he applauded Facebook’s move to admit the errors, he said the optics of the situation are not ideal for advertisers.

“It’s definitely strike two in a very short period of time,” he said. But overall, he said, as an agency, Maxus still sings the praises of Facebook. “We’ve run lots of successful campaigns on it, some on a global level. With technology, there’s always glitches, so we have to step back and look at the big picture: these errors aren’t billable metrics.”

Stewart said the only thing missing from Facebook’s admission was full openness to third-party viewability. Facebook has been offering third-party video viewability since earlier in 2016 with Moat and Integral Ad Science and did announce plans to open up third-party viewability to measure text and photo ads through comScore and Nielsen, but Stewart and Hewetson both said third-party measurement from more partners should be available on all metrics.

Matt Devlin, managing director of communications planning at PHD Canada, told MiC that video metrics are one of the less relevant forms of measurement anyway. “Completion rates and audio opt-in rates are low enough that the platform has always had limitations for those that are looking for an experience comparable to TV or forced pre-roll,” he said.

Amidst increased calls for more third-party measurement, Facebook has also taken heat in the media for the spread of fake news on the platform, particularly in light of the recent U.S. election. High-profile examples include a story of Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump and a piece from the site about Ford Motor Co. moving production from Mexico to Ohio (which was true, but the story itself came from 2015 and not recently as it had been presented).

CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded to the growing criticism of news on Facebook in a post, saying the company has “relied on our community to help us understand what is fake and what is not,” adding that any user can report links as false. “We penalize this content in the News Feed so it’s much less likely to spread.”

While Zuckerberg announced that Facebook has implemented and begun exploring numerous options such as raising the quality of “related articles” under links and possibly adding warning labels to stories that have been flagged, he did not make any promises to rid the platform of fake news.

Stewart said that despite the murmurs around fake news, he sees it as a non-issue, even for advertisers.

“It might take away a little bit of credibility from a bigger picture, but Facebook’s not a publisher,” he said. “I’d like to think that customers are savvy enough to know the difference.”

He said he hasn’t personally known of any advertisers who have expressed apprehension about the content issue, and if there are, they may require better understanding of the platform.

“You agree to it when you use it that you don’t have editorial control,” he said, adding that it was comparable to publishing advertising on any other medium.

Matt Litzinger, chief creative officer at Red Lion Canada, told MiC that while conversations around fake news have come up in a conversational manner with some clients (“We might say to one another, ‘oh, what did you think of that headline?’”), he said the topic has “not once” come up in a professional context.

“I mean this with all sincerity: I haven’t seen one company worried about using the platform over this.”

He said the options laid out by Zuckerberg are “a sign that Facebook has really started to grow up.”

Facebook did not offer comment when approached by MiC. However, a Facebook rep directed MiC to the company’s blog post on the metrics matter.