Our Take on the Facebook Video View “Scandal”

On September 22, 2016, the Wall Street Journal ran an article you might have read with some concern. It carried an ominous headline for digital marketers and their clients: “Facebook Overestimated Key Video Metric for Two Years: Social network miscalculated the average time users spent watching videos on its platform.” The headline makes it sound as if Facebook had been deliberately misleading its advertisers–the very revenue source that keeps them alive. If it were purposeful, as the headline suggests, then Facebook would almost certainly have been committing actionable fraud. But there is more going on here than meets the eye.

Before you read more, let’s be clear: we use and will continue to use Facebook as a primary ad network—and in that regard, we have a horse in the race as well. At the same time, our responsibility to clients is very, very clear. We spend their dollars (and their trust), very carefully, using data to guide our decision making. Our goal in this post is not to play apologist for Facebook, but to clarify to our clients, old, new and future, why we believe Facebook’s transgression is rooted in communication, not a conspiracy to mislead. In fact, we’ve known all along how Facebook calculated their average video views, and we’re shocked that other agencies apparently did not.

Here is an excerpt from the WSJ piece:

Ad buying agency Publicis Media was told by Facebook that the earlier counting method likely overestimated average time spent watching videos by between 60% and 80%, according to a late August letter Publicis Media sent to clients that was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. . . For the past two years Facebook only counted video views of more than three seconds when calculating its “Average Duration of Video Viewed” metric. Video views of under three seconds were not factored in, thereby inflating the average. Facebook’s new metric, “Average Watch Time,” will reflect video views of any duration. That will replace the earlier metric.

In its note to clients, Publicis said the change was an attempt to obfuscate Facebook’s earlier miscalculations.

“In an effort to distance themselves from the incorrect metrics, Facebook is deprecating [the old metrics] and introducing ‘new’ metrics in September. Essentially, they’re coming up with new names for what they were meant to measure in the first place,” the memo said.

But this reaction on the part of Publicis does not pass the sniff test. We all know how video on Facebook works—you don’t have to click to start it. If a video is part of your feed, it plays as you scroll by it. Now, if your eye paused for 2 second while you scrolled, did you really watch the video? That is the key question. Facebook measured the Average Duration of Video Viewed of those who stayed with a certain video for more than 2-3 seconds. It’s a perfectly reasonable metric. In fact, you could argue that by including these non-viewers into the overall average actual skews the numbers downward—and maybe that’s just what these mega agencies want. After all, they do own ad networks that compete with Facebook for dollars.

To its credit, Facebook not only apologized quickly, but changed both how the average is calculated and the name of the metric. It did not have to do either. There is no industry standard that Facebook should be expected to adhere to. Any media agency should know that.

Publicis Media is one of the biggest media agencies in the world, and it works with clients and other companies that compete directly with Facebook. In essence, they are competing on some level for part of the “roughly $77 billion in ads [Publicis purchased] on behalf of marketers around the world in 2015.” In the best case, the outrage that Publicis seems to be projecting could be intended to obscure that they did not know what they should have known about video on Facebook. In the worst case, it could be cynical attack designed to divert spending from Facebook to other ad networks, like those owned or controlled by the global agencies. The question we have is how did the WSJ even see a copy of the letter Publicis sent clients?

Is there blame to be laid at Facebook’s feet? Certainly. Small and medium-sized businesses and advertisers who aren’t terribly sophisticated probably were harmed by misunderstanding the metric, but for a sophisticated marketer like Publicis, the reaction seems misleading and inappropriate. Where advertisers spend money is an important decision. Properly understanding the data an ad network provides is essential to working in the best interests of the client.

We use Facebook because we make it work for our clients. If you have questions or concerns about getting the most from your spend on Facebook, we would be happy to answer them. Get in touch and let’s talk.

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