A Closer Look: Facebook over-estimates reach by dramatic numbers

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October 20, 2017 by Paul Dughi

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Maybe you saw the headline:  Facebook claims it reaches more people in the U.S. than actually live in the U.S.  It’s pretty startling when you realize, according to a report from the Video Advertising Bureau, that Facebook claims to reach 39 million U.S. adults age 18-24… when there are only 31 million that live here – a discrepancy of roughly 8 million.

“It’s difficult to understand how a precision platform, such as Facebook, could continue to miscalculate these numbers time and time again. Rather, there appears to be a systematic misrepresentation of data across the board, at a scale unlike anything we’ve ever seen.” – Video Advertising Bureau via AdWeek

Facebook also reports 58 million potential reach of adults 25-34.  That would be a pretty neat trick since there are only 44 million of them according to the US Census.

FACEBOOK TOTAL REACH

Facebook’s been in trouble with advertisers in the past due to problems with it accurately counting video views.  Facebook had to publicly apologize for overstating video metrics for more than two years.

Overestimated by 60%-80%

One of the world’s largest advertising agencies, Publicis, claimed Facebook told them the average time spent watching videos was overestimated between 60% and 80%, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“Two years of reporting inflated performance numbers is unacceptable.” — Publicis memo to clients, published in The Wall Street Journal.

What Facebook copped to was inflating the average duration of video views.  A video view on Facebook doesn’t count until it plays at least three seconds.  That’s better than what the Media Rating Council advocates – which is a view when at least 50% of the ad is visible on screen for at least two seconds.  What that means for duration though is that anything less than three seconds isn’t accounted for in Facebook’s duration metrics.

Another bug showed Facebook over-estimating unique reach by as much as 55%.

Drew Heuning is the director of digital ad buying for Omnicom, one of the world’s four largest ad buying agencies. Speaking at a conference recently, Huening echoed what many advertisers suspected: “Facebook ads are far less viewable than people were expecting.”

It’s spurned lawsuits.

“As a result of Facebook’s ‘fraudulent’ conduct, plaintiffs and members of the class expended money on advertising that they would not otherwise have spent based on a false belief that the advertisements were more successful than they actually were.” – Lawsuit against Facebook from Fierro, Agustin, Letiza

Digging deeper

Digging into the data deeper though, you get a sense of how off these numbers look.  Again, according to the Video Advertising Bureau, Facebook claims they can reach more people in every state than actual live there.

FB reach

And it’s no different in the country’s largest cities.

Top 10 cities FB reach

“Whether this is truly another metrics glitch remains to be seen. However, with questions of trust regarding ad-tech platforms at an all-time high among many marketers, our analysis provides another instance where first-party data should at least be questioned, or even challenged, particularly when the numbers don’t align with universally accepted metrics such as U.S. Census Bureau population data and basic media math.” – Video Advertising Bureau

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