Facebook needs to stop checking its own homework

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Facebook is still the world’s most popular social network, with 2.26bn monthly active users. In fact, around 2 billion people use at least one of Facebook’s services every day, that’s around one quarter of the entire population of the world, or a staggering 50% of the global population that has access to the internet.

There’s no denying its global influence, but likewise, there’s no denying the company has faced a series of challenges over the past 12 months. Looking at Facebook’s very own ‘Year in Review’, 2018 included the UN blaming the company for the spreading of hate in Myanmar, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the resulting #deleteFacebook campaign and a hack compromising over 50m Facebook accounts as just a few low points in a tumultuous year for the social network.

Another dent in Facebook’s armour is the long-running saga of it inflating the average time users spend watching videos on the platform. Although Facebook admitted to the error, in 2018 a new lawsuit alleged that it knew about the issue long before it was made public. This only served to further infuriate advertisers who had been lured into spending big on the platform in the ‘pivot to video.’

Frequent incidents of this kind have undoubtedly led to a negative impact on trust in the platform, particularly among brands and advertisers. The breakdown in trust is particularly troubling for brands who spend significant portions of their budget on the platform, in order to target customers due to those colossal user figures mentioned earlier.

An underlying issue facing Facebook, which so far hasn’t been front and centre in its very public flogging but could be just as damaging as its 2018 highlights, is the company’s reliance on checking its own homework.

Cambridge Analytica aside, the Facebook walled garden means that it has control over its measurement and reporting – digital marketers’ hands are tied when trying to prove, test or measure effectiveness from outside of the Facebook ecosystem – Facebook wants us to take its measures as gospel. This can be particularly hard to swallow in light of the inflated video metrics revealed in 2016.

However, Facebook isn’t the only culprit here, as Google also has similar blockers in place. There is a black hole in between Google and Facebook, where brands must infer and apply an element of rationale to understand behaviour of customers across the two ecosystems. As a marketing agency, we have to take an educated leap of faith and work within these constraints with our clients because Facebook and Google are on lockdown.

In a world where parts of the industry are trying to overcome a breakdown of trust and improve transparency (between both customers and brands, and brands and agencies), the duopoly is exacerbating the issue; it’s simply not helpful to add blind spots and barricades.

I doubt that the walled gardens will disappear, even with governments and regulators across the world breathing down the tech giants’ necks. But I am hopeful that the overall trend towards increased protection and control of personal data, through increased regulation, will help to improve transparency and trust with users.

Nonetheless, over six months after the introduction of GDPR, it so far hasn’t spurred the tech giants into action. In fact, Google has already been issued with a £44m fine by the French regulators, after judging that people were “not sufficiently informed" about how Google collected data to personalise advertising. GDPR hasn’t even massively impacted Facebook’s ability to target content. For example, if people opt out of sharing data on their location for advertising, it’s unlikely to massively impact our ability to target based on location. The platform has built up a huge repository of data over time on each individual based on a number of signals on and off site. As such, effective Facebook advertising now relies to a large degree on ‘Lookalike’ targeting, which is in essence doing the hard work of finding your ideal customer for you. All of this based on years of Facebook working to understand exactly who you are.

There’s no doubt that Facebook will have a long to-do list, but if it is to continue to increase its advertising income, it needs to improve its audience targeting capabilities. New entrants and disruptors are spending on Facebook as the cost-per-action (CPA) is good value for money while they build their customer base from scratch. But for brands with an established audience and customer base, it’s getting harder to perform well on Facebook, meaning budgets are stagnating. You can target 1% of the user base effectively, but to get to 3% the CPA jumps up massively, and it often just isn’t value for money when compared to other channels.

By opening up, and helping advertisers answer the attribution problem, Facebook will win back the hearts and minds of many in the industry. It’s about time they handed in their homework, get it properly graded and be seen as the industry leader that is truly making a difference.

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