Understanding the Facebook Census Discrepancy

By: Claire Hunt, Towson University 

Reliable data involving viewership of an advertisement is essential to advertisers’ planning and reporting; new reports, however, show that Facebook hasn’t been holding up their end of the deal. It is important for advertisers to use proper perspective and discretion when considering this data.

Following an Australian analyst’s assertion that Facebook’s online advertising tool claimed they can reach 1.7 million more 16- to 39-year-olds than actually exist, Pivotal Research Group analyst, Brian Wieser, recreated the study for the American population with similar results. Weiser’s study showed that while Facebook’s Ads Manager claims the website can potentially reach 41 million 18- to 24-year-olds and 60 million 25- to 34-year-olds, the U.S. Census data from 2016 only shows 31 million 18- to 24-year-olds and 45 million 25- to 34-year-olds.

This suggests that Facebook is claiming the ability to reach 25 million 18- to 34-year-olds that do not appear to exist. This discrepancy is especially important to advertisers because the 18- to 34-year-old demographic is a high target among marketers.

In an interview with the New York Times, Wieser said that the variations in this data were not widely known to advertisers: “The buyers and marketers I talked to were unaware of this and they are using it for planning purposes. Buyers are still going to buy from them and plan for them, but this is something that doesn’t need to be an error and puts every other metric they might provide into question.”

In a statement, Facebook said that the numbers are not designed to match census data, but rather “Facebook user behaviors, user demographics, location data from devices, and other factors. They are designed to estimate how many people in a given area are eligible to see an ad a business might run.”

This is not the first time that Facebook has been forced to admit a mistake in their metrics. Last year, Facebook apologized for inflating the metrics that describe the length and frequency the average user watches videos and reads articles on the site. These disclosures have sparked an industry-wide conversation about how large internet companies measure their audiences, as it is clear that there are no standardized measurement expectations in place, and if third-party measurement companies should be used to minimize the margin of error.

As digital and social media marketing continue to rise, it is essential for large internet companies, such as Facebook, to accurately report their user data to advertisers and marketers. It is essential for clients to understand exactly who they are reaching when planning for advertisements. This past April, Twitter announced expanded partnerships with third-party measurement vendors to minimize these discrepancies and provide accurate reports. While partnering with these third-party companies may add extra costs, albeit it being a small increase, to advertisers, it is the most effective and reliable way to measure the viewability of an ad, allowing for more efficient planning by advertisers.

Errors in Facebook’s measurements may not necessarily discourage advertisers from advertising with Facebook, it could ultimately restrain Facebook’s growth in ad sales. Ad revenue growth is already expected to slow for Facebook this year, as the company places to reduce the number of ads in users’ News Feeds in order to focus more on video advertisements. J.P. Morgan analyst Dough Anmuth wrote in a Tuesday note that, while the company is also working to handle ad-blocking software on desktop computers, the company feels that these factors can be managed with “higher ad pricing, continued strong engagement, and new ad inventory”; all of which could help counteract any slow down to the desired ad growth.

There are a number of factors to take into account when choosing to place an ad with a social media company and advertisers need to be sure they are getting the facts. The mistakes often made by using the seemingly “user-friendly” free tools provided by an internet company can be minimized with the help of professional research and ad planning. If you’re looking for assistance with advertising or understanding how Facebook’s disclosures could impact you, give us a ring today!