MRC in Talks With Facebook About Auditing Its Metrics

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Facebook headquarters.
Facebook headquarters. Credit: Facebook

The marketing industry's Media Rating Council has held recent talks with Facebook about auditing its measurement methodologies, which have come under scrutiny following the company's own admission that some of its numbers have been wrong.

"Facebook has yet to choose to commit to engage in the MRC accreditation process," said David Gunzerath, associate director and senior VP at the MRC. "We would very much like them to do so. We've had very direct discussions with Facebook about it."

"I think they'd be wise in the long-term to do it," he added. "It would certainly benefit the marketplace which relies on their data, and I think ultimately it would serve to benefit them as well."

Facebook declined to comment on the record for this story.

Word of talks to audit Facebook's measurements comes as demands grow louder for more third-party access to data from Facebook and other so-called walled gardens, where the operators tightly control the information on users' behavior. The MRC has also expressed interest in auditing metrics from other relatively opaque media channels including Snapchat and YouTube. But it's Facebook that has most unnerved advertisers after a series of disclosures that it had been calculating certain metrics incorrectly.

In September, Facebook revealed problems including inflated measures of the time people spent watching video clips on its platform. In October, it said a "bug" had led to faulty reporting on reactions, shares and comments on brands' unpaid posts. Last month, it said it had overcounted how many people visited marketers' and publishers' Pages and how long they spent reading Instant Articles.

And earlier in December, Facebook said some of the data it provides to publishers showing Instant Articles traffic, information that publishers sometimes use when negotiating ad prices, had been reported incorrectly. The problem could have negatively affected publishers such as the Washington Post, which said it may have hit a milestone of 100 million unique visitors without realizing it.

In each case, the practical impact has been overshadowed by the broader damage to marketers' trust in Facebook data, which informs how much they use the platform.

Facebook has allowed a small number of outside firms to provide measurement services. Indeed, it was already partnering with ComScore on Instant Articles measurement before it revealed its most recent incorrect data. It also lets Moat, Integral Ad Science and Nielsen verify some ad metrics. Regarding its inaccurate Instant Article numbers, Facebook said it was working with ComScore to update the traffic estimates.

When Facebook announced its measurement partnerships with ComScore, Integral Ad Science and Nielsen in April, the social giant affirmed its goal of "offering more advertisers the transparency they need to trust their ad delivery data."

"Independent ad verification partnerships are critical to making sure advertisers trust their ad delivery data, so they can explore exactly how to drive value for their business in feed-based platforms," Facebook said then.

Industry heavyweights including the Association of National Advertisers and WPP CEO Martin Sorrell have called for Facebook and other popular closed platforms to let outsiders provide and verify the numbers used by media buyers and sellers to plan and value digital ad campaigns.

The ANA called for the MRC to audit Facebook metrics after the initial disclosures in September.

"The ANA in particular has been a very strong public advocate" for MRC accreditation of Facebook and other walled gardens, Mr. Gunzerath said. "We think that carries a lot more weight than anything MRC says. We're seven people in an office here in midtown and the ANA represents hundreds of marketers who spend billions of dollars a year on advertising."

As the ad industry's de facto metrics certifier, the MRC has flown mostly under-the-radar for decades. But it has attained newfound relevance as new digital media and ad metrics proliferated. Around 15 years ago, the MRC oversaw around 20 audits each year. Today, that number has skyrocketed to around 100 per year, around two-thirds of which involve digital metrics.

The MRC does not provide measurement services. Rather, it is the industry's longtime outside arbiter of which metrics should be accepted industry standards. Its dues-paying members include the largest advertiser trade groups, advertisers and media companies, including the 4A's agency association, the ANA, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Starcom, GroupM, AOL, NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, Twitter, Google's DoubleClick and many more. The council also acts as a liaison between companies undergoing audits and CPA firms conducting the audits such as EY and Deloitte.

The MRC suspended a DoubleClick for Publishers desktop impressions metric in October and is working with DoubleClick owner Google to get it up to snuff.

Even today's best-known metrics providers once resisted MRC auditing. In 2007, ComScore and Nielsen agreed to have their web traffic metrics audited by the organization only after prodding from the IAB.

"Our process is voluntary," said Mr. Gunzerath. "We don't really go out publicly and call people out."

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