Media researchers call for better transparency from Google and Facebook

01 Mar 2016  |  David Pidgeon 
Media researchers call for better transparency from Google and Facebook

If you don't know how a number was calculated, can you trust it?

This week the IPA's research director called for more transparency from the likes of Google and Facebook over their handling of audience measurement figures.

Speaking at the Future of Media Research conference on Monday (29 February), Lynne Robinson said tech firms operating in media markets must be more open about how they constructed their datasets.

"They only give a partial view of the market, and it is not often clear how something has been calculated," she warned. "If they are comparing their data to other media datasets, how have they calculated that impact?

"We need far more transparency."

The problem is linked to the general disruption and fragmentation of all media.

'Traditional TV' can now be watched on pretty much any device, and is no longer confined to the box in the corner. However, the same goes for 'online video', such as YouTube, which was once confined to just desktop PCs, but is now enjoyed on mobiles and tablets - as well as TV sets.

The outcome is a messy blurring of media, markets and definitions.

When it comes down to adspend, however, it is clear the challengers - who all started life online - want a slice of the traditional broadcast pie, but they don't appear to want to play by the same rules when it comes to the audience measurement.

In the UK, TV audience measurement is carried out by Barb, a joint industry currency (JIC). With all the major broadcasters, advertisers and agencies sitting on its board, it is deemed a democratic, open and transparent way to define the currency for TV ad trading.

For YouTube or Facebook, how audience measurement is calculated is largely a commercial secret (in part underpinned by data privacy). If the new tech players want some of TV's adspend - or if they want to be seen as part of TV's future - then they need to be more transparent about their audience measurement, argues Robinson.

Furthermore, with no real understanding of how something is being calculated, confusion is seeping in.

"It is interesting to see that both Facebook and Google's video offerings are increasingly leading to demonstrations of how they can be used alongside and instead of traditional TV," Robinson said.

"However, it is often not clear what is being compared to what.

"This year we will have to focus on defining a video impact - in television the basic unit is a 30 second ad, but for Facebook it is a much shorter experience - so how is this brought together and what does it mean for the creative content of video ads?"

Earlier this year, YouTube suggested that it was a good thing that it was proposing a different measure from Facebook - both of which are different from Barb.

"This is highly confusing for the marketplace and one has to question the motives for promoting this," Robinson said.

"However, it was reassuring to find that the answer to improving the overall performance of a communications plan was to take 20% out of broadcast TV and put it into YouTube - which has been the same argument put forward by press, radio and outdoor for as long as I can remember."

Channel 4's head of advertising research & development, Martin Greenbank said that as a Barb board member he believes that to get a measurement that is believable, reliable and consistent, it has to be transparently calculated.

"That's how you understand how the data is being collated, machined and output. Transparency is a key cornerstone of what agreed measurement should be.

"If we look at any other providers of media research, we have to be very confident that that is also transparent in how it is calculated."

The second issue is the "independence factor", said Greenbank.

"It's the level of control you have about your own destiny - Barb is owned by the entire industry and all the broadcasters are there; it is not just one of them driving it."

Of course, Barb and all the other JICs - covering radio, print, outdoor and so on - still have their work cut out as they aim to measure audiences that have migrated across multiple screens. There have also been struggles to steer some slow-moving ships, coupled with the demise of one JIC, followed by a quick rebirth as something new and more modern.

Yet not forgetting that some of the industry JICs are decades old and have faced little disruption until more recently, there appears to be a sense that there is a particular way of doing things and that deviating from that has ruffled the old order.

"It's easy for me to sit here and promote the staus quo," said Greenbank, "But we're taking on board all the new ways of measuring things, but doing so in a collaborative way - so by the time it comes out it will be believable, transparent and everyone will be able to understand it."

Culture clashThere's a reason Google and Facebook don't want to open up, says Richard Marks.

I think the issue is that the new media companies just do not get the collegiate approach that underpins the media currency principle.

They are used to fierce competition as they work their way to IPO and then attempt to deliver on the potential that drives their valuation. That doesn't fit well with co-operation and transparency - rather, it means fierce competition.

Can you imagine Facebook and Google sitting around a committee table together in the way that Sky and ITV have for the last few decades? This is not a criticism of the new companies, just an observation that there really is a cultural clash when the traditional media companies start talking about transparency to new media companies who live in a world ring-fenced by IP.

I suspect the new companies would see all the talk about transparency and the 'greater good' as quaint and old-school.

Richard Marks is director of Research the Media and chaired the Future of Media Research conference.

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