Digital marketing metrics are wearing the emperor’s new clothes, and adtech companies and marketing agencies are clapping along on the parade’s sidelines, collecting advertisers’ money. So rant digital marketing tech watchdogs, the loudest of whom is the Washington Post’s Aram Zucker-Scharff.
Anger from the watchdogs boiled over on Twitter during the holidays, touched off by the Dec. 26 tweet from Zucker-Scharff, who is the director for ad engineering in the Post’s Research, Experimentation and Development group. There, “he leads the creation of platforms and code related to advertising technology for The Post and its partners,” reads his LinkedIn bio, which also notes that he’s the “lead developer for the open-source tool, PressForward.”
The difference between the comments from Zucker-Scharff and the article he mentions in his tweet, which contains some language that might not be suitable for work and misspellings, is that Zucker-Scharff is talking about metrics that digital marketers often accept at face value. Whereas the article Zucker-Scharff excerpts in the tweet is discussing malicious, fraudulent acts that cost digital advertisers $36 million, as well as the more blatant metrics misrepresentations.
The numbers are all fking fake, the metrics are bullshit, the agencies responsible for enforcing good practices are knowing bullshiters enforcing and profiting off all the fake numbers and none of the models make sense at scale of actual human users. https://t.co/sfmdrxGBNJ pic.twitter.com/thvicDEL29
— Aram Zucker-Scharff (@Chronotope) December 26, 2018
Zucker-Scharff's tweet prompted immediate response from other tech insiders, including former Reddit interim CEO Ellen K. Pao. Pao is also known as a pioneering whistleblower of brogrammer culture.
It's all true: Everything is fake. Also mobile user counts are fake. No one has figured out how to count logged-out mobile users, as I learned at reddit. Every time someone switches cell towers, it looks like another user and inflates company user metrics https://t.co/tk1PKuvLL6
— Ellen K. Pao (@ekp) December 27, 2018
Summarizing the adtech watchdogs’ outrage in her post on Dec. 27 in Marketing Land, Robin Kurzer opines:
“As an advertiser, you should know what you’re paying for. Digital advertising is still experiencing growing pains; but at some point, the industry needs to grow up. Perhaps regular uproars from adtech practitioners like Zucker-Scharff will finally get ad platforms to stop issuing apologies and instead figure out a way to deliver usable and accurate metrics. The time has come.”
It’s Not Like Digital Advertisers Were Silent
In 2016, the Association of National Advertisers spoke out about Facebook needing third-party oversight of its ad metrics after a video measurement snafu. Then, Procter and Gamble’s Chief Brand Officer Marc S. Pritchard stated that the social media platform needed to clean up its act. He urged all marketers to demand accountability from vendors, platforms and advertising agencies.
In February 2018, Unilever leaders took a stand against ads running next to content including YouTube videos containing content endangering children, hate speech and other objectionable content. Unilever’s leaders didn’t want to prop up a digital supply chain that included “fake news” and political divisiveness on Facebook.
Smaller advertisers took Facebook to court, alleging social media ads didn’t reach the number of consumers Facebook claimed they reached.
These actions from prominent advertisers did cause the platforms to take action, including Facebook allowing some third-party oversight and YouTube adding more video vetters.
So What Can Publishers Do to Help in This Latest Digital Marketing Metrics Mess?
Can marketers trust publishers to be their digital marketing gatekeepers?
Publishers who are careful to avoid fraudulent traffic, such as bots, not only work to keep those clicks at bay, they report measurements about engagement over pageviews.
As Peter Houston puts it in his December 2017 post on PubExec.com:
“The fragmentation of traffic sources has analysts looking hard at article-level behaviors. And they are getting way more granular than whether a visit came from search or a particular social platform. They want to know: Do readers coming from Google stay longer? Do Facebook users consume more content than Twitter users? Do Snapchat audiences move on to other articles within the site?
“The difficulty in securing new digital display revenue has led to a renewed focus on subscription and membership revenue. Where scale was once the driver, publishers are now interested in audience metrics that identify loyal audience members that will pay for product; from what is the right number of free articles, to which newsletters convert best?”
Still, one of the challenges for publishers remains that consumers will pay for ad blocking, but haven’t felt as much of an urge to pay for content — even with their data. And ad blocking options are becoming a kind of gatekeeper, by allowing some ads through if they pay to be whitelisted, Poynter reports.
For Better or Worse, Digital Is Where the Eyeballs Are
Even if digital properties are the cesspool of fakeness watchdogs say they are, those places are where they need to go to reach consumers, marketers keep finding out.
Even prominent brands couldn’t cut off ad budgets completely.
The platforms need to really mess up in order to lose advertisers, like Facebook’s Instagram could have done if it kept the highly unpopular horizontal scrolling option in place:
Due to a bug, some users saw a change to the way their feed appears today. We quickly fixed the issue and feed is back to normal. We apologize for any confusion.
— Instagram (@instagram) December 27, 2018
What do you think, marketers?
Please respond in the comments section below.
Related story: Unilever Threatens to Pull Ads From Facebook and Google