Facebook Viewing Time Exaggeration Renews Calls for Independent Cross Platform Video Measurement

Facebook’s over statement of video consumption for the last two years has sparked fresh calls for independent measurement of viewing across all the major Internet platforms. It has also highlighted once again the challenges involved in conceiving a metric that fairly and accurately represents the relative value of views across different online properties, especially to advertisers.

At one level the Facebook case is a storm in a tea cup, drawing flak from advertisers only because of the company’s rapid ascent to a dominant position in online video advertising. Facebook now ranks second only to the combined force of Google and its YouTube subsidiary in terms of where marketeers plan to place digital video ads, according to New York based ad research firm Advertiser Perceptions.

At another level it represents Facebook’s growing pains in the video ad field, which does not quite gel with its established model as a platform capable of delivering advertising messages to hundreds of millions of people simultaneously in a way that is visually engaging but not too obtrusive. The step to video opening inside the window to consume the full screen might seem like a natural progression but means engaging in the murky world of view measurement where Facebook has come slightly unstuck.

The key metric that has been overstated is the average video view time. This should be calculated by dividing the total viewing time by the number of individual views. Facebook did this but eliminated those views lasting less than three seconds from the total number of views, which may sound reasonable but increases the average because now it is only including those longer than three seconds.

The immediate reaction to Facebook’s admission that it had been miscalculating the average view time for two years was naturally overblown with mendacious suggestions that business damage had been caused to some advertisers. This largely reflected Facebook’s status, when in reality it had no impact on business decisions. It was in a sense no more than an embarrassment.

It was significant though in propelling the industry towards some form of universal cross platform metric, despite the challenges involved. The TV industry has long had robust panels which have evolved over many decades and satisfied multiple parties with different and sometimes conflicting interests.

Martin Sorrell, chief executive of the world’s largest advertising group WPP, has called for independent measurement of Facebook’s video viewing.

Martin Sorrell, chief executive of the world’s largest advertising group WPP, has called for independent measurement of Facebook’s video viewing.

While that model has been partly overtaken by technical developments, firstly availability of a return path enabling direct audience measurement and then the rise of online delivery to connected devices, the underlying approach is one that is now being urged on the online video community. The Facebook case makes it clear that if new OTT services, as well as TV Everywhere offerings from traditional broadcasters or pay TV operators, are to attract major advertisers they need to emulate the consensus approach of the panel. The prevailing view among marketeers was expressed by Martin Sorrell, chief executive of the world’s largest advertising group WPP, who pointed out that the Facebook case “highlights the dangers of having a large dominant company acting as both ‘referee and player’.” Sorrell added his weight to calls for an independent arbiter of online views across the major platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

This raises the question of who this arbiter should be. In the case of TV it has been the likes of Nielsen, or in the UK the Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB), but these are subject to external auditing. For online the measurement would need global reach and a leading contender would be comScore, which is arguably better placed than any other enterprise after acquiring Rentrak for $768 million early 2016. This enabled Rentrak’s set top box data analytics to be combined with comScore’s own online measurements to yield cross platform ratings. comScore quickly followed up by placing a stake in the ground with an announcement it would start rolling out cross platform ratings in April 2016. This remains a work in progress since comScore is still accumulating sources for its OTT data, which it describes vaguely as being a combination of census and panel based. It is also largely confined to the US at present, although its relationship with Kantar is aimed at international expansion. comScore insists it has already managed to eliminate duplication in measurement of cross platform viewing and incorporates linear TV, time-shifted content, video on demand, desktop, mobile, as well as general OTT. They certainly have a lead and look like favourites to be the dominant universal cross platform measurement company, although will face strong competition from Nielsen among others.

There is one other considerable hurdle still to be surmounted, which is how to reconcile differences in engagement between platforms when measuring video views. It might be argued that a three second snippet on Facebook is worth more than the same clip on YouTube where there is an expectancy to watch for longer. However YouTube could retort that many people viewing the Facebook clip would have the sound down and not hear the audio, lessening its impact. Furthermore Google now offers its TrueView format for ads whereby advertisers only pay for views in excess of 30 seconds, which they say stimulates greater engagement.

The key point is that the value of a view will vary according both to the product or service being advertised and the associated business objectives. That value will be different depending on whether the aim is say to promote the brand or elicit an action such as purchase.

All that can be done is develop a baseline for measurement, but even then establishing a common calibration across diverse platforms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter, with their different dynamics and engagement profiles, will be subjective and contentious. 

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