Reporting on digital – understanding the minefield

It's expected that, this year, global digital ad spend will top US$200 billion, finally eclipsing TV spend, which is estimated to decrease to US$192 billion. This might not surprise too many, given the increase in and attention we’ve given digital over the last decade.

As the number of people we see fiddling with an iPhone on the bus or pounding the keys of a laptop in a cafe continues to increase, more and more marketers are focusing efforts on digital.

Besides the ability to target our audiences, the seemingly specific data we receive from our campaigns has always allured marketers in attempts to best allocate resources and accurately track ROI.

However, the elephant in the room has been the challenging nature of the digital metrics we receive for our dollars. This has resulted in increased scrutiny of the numbers – their legitimacy, their integrity, as well as their placement.

The question is, should we be worried about allocating spending towards digital, given the concerns about these metrics?

Arguably the biggest concern is the nature of the views or clicks. Are they even legitimate? Fraudulent traffic is where the source for a counted view or click etc. is either an automated bot or comes from a click farm – meaning someone who isn’t a genuine or interested audience member is paid for an action.

Bot traffic and views are having an impact, although their percentage is unclear and is widely argued.

When putting money behind any media, the aim is to reach our desired audiences. Fraudulent traffic or views mean companies could be paying for results that aren’t authentic, which affects the success of a campaign.

This activity, however, can be highlighted by paying attention to other digital metrics on your owned platforms or with the help of other organisations. This enables you to somewhat quantify the effect of illegitimate traffic.

In September of last year, Facebook fell on its sword and announced that it had miscalculated average video views, which in turn overstated the time audiences were spending with brand videos. Two months later, it admitted again that there was a discrepancy – this time that repeat visitors had been double counted, impacting reach figures by some 55 per cent.

Both were important metrics in regards to the success of marketers' campaigns and highlighted a concern that Facebook marketers shared – with no external verification, can we trust the data that Mark Zuckerberg’s insights spit out?

Facebook has opened up on a few of these miscalculations, which is somewhat transparent. However, with a few more discrepancies reported in the past 12 months, as well as the fact that Google and Facebook own the platforms they’re giving you results for, you can forgive some for being dubious.

The other side of the digital equation is where the ads are seen; YouTube has come under significant fire for this over the past 12 months. Several large American companies pulled large spend from the Alphabet-owned platform, as pre-roll ads were sometimes aired in front of less than savoury videos.

Compared to TV or radio, where you know the type of content the advertising will be surrounded by, this is a challenging notion for marketers. Many brands have guidelines around the context and content where their messages are seen; in this case their control was reduced.

With Facebook currently rolling out Watch, its YouTubesque video platform, and the likelihood of increased pre-roll in native video, there will be much scrutiny over how it handles the distribution of ads and assures marketers the same issues won’t arise.

With concerns about the nature, measurability and context of digital spend, what should organisations look to? News that the likes of P&G has cut some US$100 million from digital spend has many worried. However, this doesn’t mean digital is under threat.

Whether digital or traditional metrics, there has always been a certain mystique about the source and accuracy of audience data. With its inherent challenges, there's some onus on marketers to ask questions of their media agencies to ensure results are as accurate as possible, and spend and goals are legitimate.