Distributed publishers face the third-party measurement question
Facebook and Snapchat offer publishers more eyeballs, but will publishers need ComScore and Nielsen to audit those audiences for advertisers?
If a publisher posts a video it produced for an advertiser to Facebook, does anyone see it? Of course they do; just look at the viewership figures Facebook posts below each video. But if a third-party measurement firm like ComScore or Nielsen can independently audit those views, do they actually count? It’s a question that publishers and advertisers may soon need to address.
Publishers are increasingly distributing their content — and the content they create for advertisers — outside of their own walls, including on Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat, Apple News and soon, Facebook Messenger. That “distributed publishing” means the potential for more people to see their and their advertisers’ content But in many cases, firms like ComScore and Nielsen — used by brands to check that traffic — can’t, which complicates brands’ abilities to evaluate different platforms for an apples-to-apples comparison.
“You’re entering new territory,” said Athan Stephanopoulos, president of digital video network NowThis News that exclusively distributes its editorial and branded content on others’ platforms, including Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and Twitter. “Everyone’s facing the same scenarios, particularly from an advertiser perspective. I think they have a traditional sense of understanding digital measurement using ComScore and others. So now it’s becoming harder when you’re dealing with platforms that have their own unique measurements or abilities to capture the data. And they’re all very different.”
For example, publishers like NowThis News focus on video views to measure the performance of their editorial and branded videos. But Facebook counts a view after a video has played for at least three seconds, whereas YouTube typically counts it after 30 seconds, and Snapchat counts it once the video starts playing. As a result, publishers like NowThis News and PopSugar have had to devise internal methods to equate these otherwise disparate view counts. “It’s not always the same for every advertiser, but the three-second view on Facebook is not what we’re counting,” said David Grant, president of PopSugar Studios.
Publishers like Mic and Vox Media have to grapple with not only evaluating their video content, but also more traditional text-based content that can live on their own sites, in Apple’s News app or on Facebook through its Instant Articles format. So they’ve also opted to find a way to normalize those measurements.
Vox Media uses the view as a common thread to create a more apples-to-apples way to count its editorial content across platforms. But the process is closer to calculus than arithmetic. It incorporates metrics like view time or completion rates, as well as content shares, said Vox Media VP of global marketing and communications Jonathan Hunt. And on the advertising side, Vox Media will work with Nielsen and others to measure how much each platform in a campaign may have increased a brand’s awareness or position in the consideration set among its audience.
“We’re rolling all of those numbers up into one very big number,” said Mic chief strategy officer Cory Haik. That involves figuring out the value of someone viewing a short-form video that’s designed to be watched without sound versus a traditional video or a text article. “Counting those kinds of video views next to your [unique visitor] number for text-driven content, those certainly aren’t one-to-one in my mind. You certainly don’t monetize them the same way.”
Whether provided with platforms’ publicly reported video view counts or publishers’ roll-your-own measurements, advertisers are likely to prefer measurements recorded by a company that isn’t incentivized by bigger numbers, even if ComScore’s or Nielsen’s numbers may not be as accurate as the platforms’ or publishers’ own figures. For example, a glitch in Facebook’s iOS apps last fall led ComScore to incorrectly measure the amount of time people spent using the social network’s apps. Despite the error, agencies said they preferred to rely on ComScore’s numbers, rather than the ones provided by Facebook directly. “We still think that third parties’ broad strokes are better than folks grading their own homework,” GroupM’s social practice head Kieley Taylor told this reporter in February.
The third-party measurement limitations don’t appear to have hindered publishers trying to sell advertisers on branded content distributed on and off the publishers’ domains. Both NowThis News’ Stephanopoulos and Vox Media’s global VP of revenue and partnerships, Mike Hadgis, said advertisers aren’t withholding budgets because of measurement concerns. For now, any concerns can be assuaged by the fact that this is all very new and, for video campaigns, Facebook and YouTube publicly report viewership figures.
“I don’t see advertisers hesitant to test out a new platform because there’s a lack of ComScore or Nielsen at the get-go,” Hadgis said.
“Test” is an important word here. The distributed publishing trend is new for publishers and advertisers alike, so not having independent measurement is part of the cost of doing business. “Everybody’s in the same boat. There is a little bit of a relaxed tone,” Stephanopoulos said.
Things could change if this emerging trend matures into serious business, which is expected to be the case. Mic’s Haik said “distributed domain” traffic — traffic to content that’s hosted on others’ platforms like Facebook’s Instant Articles or Apples News but can generate revenue for publishers — could eventually trump traffic to Mic’s own site. That off-site traffic would not only become more vital to Mic’s business but more valuable to advertisers, assuming they could have someone appraise it for them.
As an example of how things could play out without independent measurement audits, for a time advertisers tolerated not being able to have a third-party firm check that their ads on Facebook and YouTube had a chance to be seen by meeting the advertisers’ viewability thresholds. But last year, major marketers, including Kellogg, began to pull back their budgets over the issue, leading to both Facebook and YouTube allowing third-party viewability verification later in the year.
Even if publishers aren’t losing money over the measurement issue, they may be leaving money on the table by not being able to get brands to pay for impressions on large platforms that can’t be measured. BuzzFeed has run into instances where brands don’t want videos posted to YouTube, where most views happen on mobile, which comScore can’t measure. A BuzzFeed spokesperson declined to make an executive available for an interview.
“I’m sure I’m leaving some dollars on the table, but there’s so much coming in that I almost like the evolutional curve that it’s on now,” said PopSugar’s Grant. “I don’t see a big barrier in front of continued high growth… It might go faster if there was more independent measurement. But right now the big issue in the size of the business is somewhat the measurement but really the scale because we’re still growing in scale.”
Some of the measurement issue is getting ironed out. For example, ComScore is able to measure publishers’ traffic through Facebook Instant Articles, and Snapchat has signed a deal with Nielsen to measure the video ads run in its app, including on publishers’ Discover channels. And digital video measurement firms like Tubular Labs, which can track video views across different platforms, have been able to fill the void, potentially putting pressure on the more traditional measurement companies to join the fold.
But seemingly, for every platform that enables third-party measurement, another pops up. Less than two months after Snapchat’s deal with Nielsen, in April, Facebook is expected to open up Messenger to publishers, but it’s unclear whether ComScore, Nielsen or another measurement firm will be on board. And even if Messenger allows third-party measurement, there will just as soon be another platform yet to offer it.
“I don’t see a holy grail coming up, but I do see a ComScore or a Nielsen looking at all the different platforms and figuring out how can they attach their brand studies or reports into those platforms. But it’s going to take a while,” said Hadgis.