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Industry Contributor 5 Aug 2020 - 3 min read

The Facebook boycott: a chance to properly probe effectiveness - is 1.7 seconds enough?

By Jonathan Fox, Director of Effectiveness

The Facebook boycott has been drawing big headlines, with Disney among one of the major brands in recent weeks to pull spend. The question marketers need to consider is: whether there is an opportunity to look at social media platforms and examine if they are delivering what they expect them to.

Key points:

  • More than 90 major advertisers are pulling advertising from Facebook, as part of the ‘Stop Hate for Profit’ campaign - some are returning, some staying out 
  • On average, users spend 1.7 seconds with each item of Facebook content, providing a very limited opportunity for the ad to be effective
  • Very few consumers make it 50% of the way through Facebook video ads
  • Social media effectiveness varies a lot, making it high risk, high reward
  • Low interest categories – insurance, politics, banking, toilet paper, etc. should probably avoid social media advertising all together. However, it can often be effective for high interest categories such as beer, TV, and video games
  • Some video rich social campaigns can work like TV, with effects lasting more than six months. This is rarely the case on Facebook though.
  • Brands investing in social media advertising should experiment and measure its effectiveness, outside of using the channel’s own tools, to see how it compares with other media channels

Facebook users spend an average of 1.7 seconds with each item of Facebook content. Very few consumers make it 50% of the way through Facebook video ads, providing a very limited opportunity for the ad to be effective.

A pitfall for social media advertising effectiveness is that despite the large number of people spending long periods of time on the platforms, there is relatively little time spent viewing ads. Social media is often considered a must-have channel in a marketer’s advertising campaign. It has a low cost to entry and a strong targeting capability, both in terms of demographic and location. It can also provide brands with access to hard-to-reach, potential consumers who have a higher than average propensity to want your product or service.

But in the current socio-economic environment brands are rightly questioning whether a social media environment is one they should be in, amid concerns around these platforms in terms of hate speech and fake news.

Putting aside these moral questions for a moment, the boycott gives brands a real chance to step back and assess the true efficacy of the platform.

On a simplistic level, the value exchange that takes place for social media advertising appears to be the same as it is for traditional media, such as TV and Radio, whereby a user is given free content in return for consuming advertising. But the key difference with social media advertising is the quality of the content and the environment it sits in.

Most social media content is user-generated, and users can post what they like. The huge volume of content and any subjectivity around freedom of speech makes it exceptionally difficult for social media companies to police what is posted, leaving brands at risk of appearing alongside the very worst content. And some have.

Brand safety concerns are nothing new, but I would argue that marketers are rightly becoming more concerned about ensuring that they are not put in these dangerous environments. So far, more than 90+ major advertisers have joined the boycott, including high profile brands such as Disney in recent weeks. This has the potential to drive action.

Viewability remains a big concern for advertisers investing on these platforms. In September 2019, the MRC tightened the viewability standard slightly, now counting viewable impressions as ‘100% of pixels on screen for at least two continuous seconds’ for combined, deduplicated cross-media video measurement (previously 50% of pixels on screen counted). This still seems like a low bar, but Professor Karen Nelson Field should be praised for spearheading this revision. Her work, which highlights the importance of viewability and screen coverage in order to gain consumers’ attention, is improving the standards for advertising measurement. After all, attention correlates closely with sales, and therefore plays a crucial role in advertising effectiveness.

A hidden reward for brands who decide to pull their advertising from Facebook is the opportunity to measure its incremental impact on their business. It could even be a convenient excuse to stop spending so heavily on social media if they discover it’s not as effective as they thought.

Google Analytics and Facebook’s own measurement tools give marketers confidence by showing conversions within their own environments. The problem with this analysis is that it doesn’t account for the impact of any other media channels. Often social media is part of a multichannel media campaign and we shouldn’t be too quick to attribute a single click on social to be the sole driver of the inquiry or transaction.

Add to this a lack of transparency regarding the metrics, such as the absence of viewable impressions, no understanding of bot traffic or fake accounts, and marketers find themselves in a real measurement minefield.

So how do marketers extricate themselves from this situation?

As Grace Kite explains in her piece on the boycott – the first step is to move away from using measurement tools provided by the social giants. Third party measurement is important and needs to be demanded.

The second is to build a test where you can compare social media’s performance with other channels – marketers can do this easily through a geographic test – for example, invest in social media advertising in Sydney, switch it off in Brisbane and compare the difference in sales. This is called a regional test vs. control experiment. Ideally, you keep other sales drivers consistent across both regions, but modelling can be done to incorporate any differences such as the weather.

When you do this it’s much easier to assess the individual contribution of that media channel to your sales and thus assess its effectiveness.

We have to be honest and acknowledge that all media channels and all platforms carry some level of brand risk. But the wider debate happening among marketers around social media is a healthy and much needed one as marketers, government and society at large come to terms with both how to manage user-generated content and the impact it is having on us all.

To my mind though, marketers should seek to grasp the opportunity inherent in this moment. It is an opportunity to reflect, test and learn about social media advertising. We shouldn’t trust a media owner’s own metrics. Only when we have conducted our own test vs. control experiments will we be armed with a true understanding of what is working and what might not be working the way we thought.

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Jonathan Fox, Director of Effectiveness


Jonathan Fox is Nine's Director of Effectiveness. He has been an experienced consultant in advertising effectiveness working mainly within FMCG, Retail, Travel & Tourism and Finance. Prior to Nine he was head of effectiveness for independent marketing and media consultancy Ebiquity.

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