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Facebook needs accountability to win back advertisers’ trust

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The advertising industry let out a collective groan in September when Facebook admitted a “discrepancy” in its reporting that led it to overstate how much time, on average, viewers were watching video.

Because the error was huge — numbers were inflated as much as 60-80 percent for two years — and in Facebook’s favor, some were quick to ascribe sinister motives. At the very least, it showcased the folly of trusting a media company to provide its own metrics.

“We have also been calling for a long time for media owners like Facebook and Google not to mark their own homework and release data to comScore to enable independent evaluation,” Martin Sorrell, chief executive officer of WPP, told Bloomberg. “The referee and player cannot be the same person.” (It should be noted that WPP has invested in the research from comScore.)

Advertisers buy Facebook video on a cost-per-view basis that counts a view at three seconds or more, so marketers didn’t pay extra for the error. The stats did, however, foster the impression that Facebook videos were more effective than they actually were, which likely prompted marketers to spend more than they had planned.

For marketers, this once again illustrates the monopolistic position of Facebook and Google. Barring a Microsoft-like government intervention, it’s FaceGoogle’s world now, and we must all adapt. Assuming, however, that Facebook wants to create goodwill in the market, here are five ways marketers can push the social network to do the right thing:

  • Demand an internal audit: Ideally, Facebook would hire a third-party firm to perform an internal audit to discover what went wrong this time and confirm that safeguards are in place so something similar won’t happen again. That’s the first step in rebuilding trust with marketers.
  • Require Facebook to use third-party verification: The ANA has already suggested that Facebook should use the Media Rating Council for independent third-party verification. “ANA does not believe there are any pragmatic reasons that a media company should not abide by the standards of accreditation and auditing,” ANA CEO Bob Liodice wrote in a blog post in late September. So far, Facebook has declined to comment about using the MRC.
  • Demand transparency going forward: Facebook is a walled garden, so marketers don’t have a great deal of visibility about its inner workings. One reason that Facebook’s Inflategate was allowed to persist was that the company’s performance dashboard lacked some metrics and an explanation of methodology. Facebook’s viewing metric should have been determined by dividing the total time spent watching a video by the number of people watching. Instead, it divided by the number of “views” (a play of three or more seconds). If Facebook had provided separate columns for views and people watching, then its error by omission wouldn’t have occurred.
  • Work with smaller players: Independent adtech firms often use every sort of third-party tracking metric available to make their ROI case to marketers. If a brand wants to bring their own metrics, they can. The big guys have much more leverage, so they can cherry-pick their metrics and “grade their own homework.”
  • Pressure the feds to intervene: In the 1990s, when Microsoft held a monopolistic position in desktop computing, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the company, eventually drawing out a settlement. Though the deal was a slap on the wrist, Microsoft faced a barrage of bad publicity that forever tarnished its brand. While that kind of smackdown might not be in order now, the FTC has previously stepped in when Facebook was caught lying to consumers about their data privacy. Lying to businesses (if that’s the case) would seem to warrant similar intervention.

The reality is, no one really knows if Facebook was being devious here or merely sloppy. Either way, many brands were deceived into thinking their ads were working better than they were. That shouldn’t happen. Marketers have enough to worry about without trying to figure out who’s telling the truth and who has their finger on the scale.

Featured Image: Martin Barraud/Getty Images