The newer the medium, the worse the media bullshit

Tim BurrowesLast week Sir Martin Sorrell pointed out that Facebook’s claims about video views lack credibility. The issue is just the latest evidence that digital media is driving a transparency crisis, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes.   

I had an eye-opening chat to a blogger the other day.   

For the sake of argument, we’ll call her Penelope.

Having established her “influencer” credentials by building up a following in her particular Instagram niche, she had been urged by the agency representing her that it was time to launch a website.

This agency (to protect the innocent, I should point out that most people won’t have heard of them) had advised Penelope the best way of getting more dollars from clients was to have a web presence too.

So Penelope went ahead and built a blog, and the agency designed her a media kit.

In that kit, she was surprised to read that her yet-to-launch offering apparently had more unique visits per month that many mainstream news sites.

Penelope asked her agency about the outlandish claim. It was normal in a media kit to take an optimistic guess at what the site might one day achieve in traffic, she was reassured.

But what if a client asked for proof, Penelope wanted to know? “That’s what Google Analytics and Photoshop are for,” the agency replied.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the same goes for all of the influencers on the agency’s books.

But guess what? In all the times brands have paid Penelope to post images of their clothes, snacks and luxury destinations, nobody has ever asked her to prove her audience.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise, given that the influencer space is the fastest developing business opportunity in marketing at present. If you thought the world went nuts about content marketing last year, then that’s nothing compared to the influencer gold rush occurring right now. This is an industry which loves to be first into the next big thing, often at the expense of knowing, or even measuring, what the return on investment looks like.

That’s why we’re seeing so many would-be influencers cheaply buying fake followers and likes to look more credible in advertiser eyes.

It was most amusing when many of them lost huge chunks of their followings overnight when Instagram held its great cleanup late last year. (I wonder how many brands then asked influencers for money back. Mind you, most people’s numbers have crept back up again since, so it may be time for another cull.)

But it’s not just the influencer space where the media bullshit abounds. And the further we go from traditional media, the less we can automatically trust the numbers.

Sorrell: Facebook video claims are "ludicrous"

Sorrell: Facebook video claims are “ludicrous”

As WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell rightly pointed out on Friday, social video claims – and particularly those being made by Facebook right now mean almost nothing.

You’ll have seen those videos go past in your Facebook feed. Muted as you scrolled past, if it played for three seconds, Facebook is still counting you as a viewer, even if you remain unaware it existed.

You’d be foolish to automatically switch your strategy from YouTube to Facebook on the back of these dodgy stats, yet many brands are doing just that. (To be clear, I’m not arguing against posting native video to each major platform. That makes sense, just don’t do it because you think the number means something – and certainly don’t incentivise your agency on it.)

Then of course comes the huge problem of online ad fraud. Brands can reasonably assume that a large percentage (5%? 10%? 20%? Who knows…) of clicks on their ads are fraudulent, particularly when bought through ad networks. There’s no human, just a program doing that clicking.

Given that media agencies are all now in the programmatic business, their interests are no longer necessarily aligned with those of their clients when it comes to detecting dodgy clicks. Not to mention of course, the reduction in transparency for clients when agencies indulge in the profit-friendly arbitrage model in their programmatic offerings.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau, funded by Australia’s digital media companies, promised to commission a study into ad fraud back in February. I wonder how that’s going.

At least traditional media has had a chance for trustworthy methodologies to emerge over the years, even if the industry doesn’t always give them the weight they deserve.

This is one reason why I’m so fond of circulation audits for newspapers and magazines (and indeed, websites and email newsletters).

If I’m spending a brand’s money, first of all I’d like to know if the publisher can prove that the number of copies they claim to have printed, really were printed.

Given the relatively low cost of auditing I always find it hard to think of a reasonable explanation for a publication not to audit, other than the number being embarrassingly low.

Bauer Media withdrew Zoo Weekly from the audit after its circulation number declined to 24,122. If the rate of decline continued at the same pace, it will now be well below 20,000. Instead, the unsophisticated media buyer can make their spending choice on the Zoo Weekly media kit page, which claims an impressive readership of 138,000, via the Roy Morgan Readership survey. This methodology relies on asking people what they recall reading over the past week.

GQ Australia cover

GQ: Circulation below 10,000?

Similarly, I’d always wondered what NewsLifeMedia’s GQ really did in circulation terms, as it wasn’t audited. The current claimed GQ readership number, vis the EMMA industry-funded survey, is 123,000.

Yet it took last year’s stunning leak of News Corp’s internal accounts, published by Crikey, to reveal that even back in 2013, GQ was selling only 14,000 copies – something I’m not aware of it ever having admitted publicly. Two years on, if GQ has followed most mags’ pattern of circulation decline, that would be well below 10,000.

Yet my impression is that media agencies do not ask publishers enough hard questions about why they are not audited.

By the way, I have a dog in this race: Unlike Mumbrella, our rivals B&T and AdNews do not audit their digital properties.

It’s a constant cause of puzzlement that relatively sophisticated media brands don’t ask tougher questions about why somebody wouldn’t spend those few dollars on auditing to prove audience claims if they’re true.

But when it comes to the future of print circulation audits, I must admit I’m a pessimist. I fear that there are too many aligned interests among publishers who would prefer that the industry standard to become estimated readership, not audit. I’m not sure how much longer the Audited Media Association of Australia will survive, unless media agencies and brands really demand it in order to keep the media owners honest.

Readership is a great planning tool and a lousy fraud deterrent.

But if you were a publisher experiencing quarter after quarter of decline, it’s easy to understand why paying to publicise that bad news is unattractive, unless it’s the cost of being in the game. Increasingly, it’s not.

Another traditional medium that has found a more effective, and subtle, form of misdirection is radio.

Next time the radio numbers come out in just under a fortnight, just watch how they get reported in the press.

Everybody will report audience share, and nobody (Mumbrella included, I’m afraid) will report actual audience numbers.

Which is helpful to the radio industry, because the share number sounds impressive (based as it is only on people listening to radio at the time, not the whole population) while the reach number is so much smaller than many would think.

So the radio industry simply holds back those reach numbers from the press, and share remains the currency, unsatisfactory as it is. The reach numbers stay internal to the stations.

At least most people see OzTAM’s TV numbers as a credible best estimate. But clients should still look out for traps. Mediacom’s scandal came because when the OzTAM numbers didn’t reach the campaign targets, staff retrospectively forged those targets when reporting back to clients.

As an industry, we can’t be trusted to mark our own homework.

In Cold War anti nuclear proliferation negotiations, the key phrase was “Trust, but verify”.

The combination of inexperienced and busy marketers, conflicted agencies and incentivised media owners is creating a situation of unprecedented media bullshit.

There’s way too much trust and way too little verification.

Tim Burrowes is Mumbrella’s content director


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