Setting free the data

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In this brave new world of big data, brands are no longer satisfied with the slow drip of performance metrics.

Facebook's repeated missteps when it comes to reporting metrics—from video views and organic page reach to average time spent on Instant Articles and referrals—has refocused attention on the friction caused by lack of transparency when it comes to data reported to brands by publishers and agents.

A high wall famously exists around the Menlo Park garden. Along with Google, Facebook so dominates online publishing that it gets away with offering its own proprietary view of performance metrics rather than direct access to the data itself. At least, that's largely been the case so far—although marketers are increasingly nervous that more significant errors might not yet have been found or reported.

But although Facebook has "long sought to avoid ... any sort of need to bring advertising partners closer to the source"—and may continue to do so—other publishers (and agencies) are starting to understand that, in this brave new world of big data, brands aren't satisfied with a slow drip-feed of performance metrics from the parties responsible for creating and/or distributing the content:

  • Errors can go undiscovered or unacknowledged
  • Agile optimization needs real-time reporting, and 
  • Allowing publishers and agencies to put the results of their efforts in the best possible light—for them—just intuitively creates a possible conflict of interest.

Transparency is Paramount
"It's understandable that a lot of people were disappointed to hear that Facebook's internal audit uncovered several more metrics that were being miscalculated this week. Today's marketers are required to prove the value of every dollar they invest across the web, and to do that they have to have trust in the data these platforms are providing," wrote Anda Gasca in an email. "It's essential that transparency be paramount as our industry wades through the process of creating standards and consistent metrics in parallel to the spend scaling," she continued.

Gasca is CEO and co-founder of New York-based Knotch—the "k" is silent—an independent provider of real-time digital marketing intelligence. On her Twitter account, she says: "I wish more things in life got me as excited as data." In a recent conversation, I found her excited about independence too. Knotch has avoided accepting funding from publishers and distribution platforms, remaining intent on delivering unblemished data to its clients.

"It's imperative," she says, that brands "work with metrics providers that aren't commercially connected to the content and the media itself." In other words, "publishers and agents shouldn't be grading their own homework." 

That's probably always been true, of course: But as with so many other live topics in marketing—ABM, for example—the technology is just catching up. The digital environment has created a tidal wave of real-time performance data; not just from digital channels, but increasingly from connected "real world" channels too (think POS and voice). "There's just too much data from too many places," said Gansca. "Too much data and not enough intelligence."

But there's no need for the brand side stitch together performance metrics from a series of sources deployed over multiple channels—SiteCatalyst (Omniture), Chartbeat, Google Analytics, as well as publisher and agency reports. It's possible to use one methodology to funnel omnichannel data into one dashboard everyone can share: the brand, the publisher, the agency, the marketing automation platform. Knotch "doesn't charge per seat," Gasca said.

"So far we haven't relied on APIs," Gasca continued. "We collect our own data. We're working on Facebook; there's a long way to go." Knotch faced some resistance at first from publishers: "They were paranoid about not being able to tell their own story around the data." But at the end of the day "transparency—or truth—benefits everyone."

Stop Holding the Data Hostage
Erica Jenkins, chief product officer at Sysomos, also sees the need for change. "We're doing a great job" doesn't cut if for publishers and agencies any more. There's a temptation to "mould numbers" to keep business. She does, however, give Facebook some credit: "Facebook truly was at the forefront of providing brands with advanced analytics because of the depth of audience information they have accessible. As with any new ad buying medium, there is always a level of risk involved and the validation of this new data from third parties takes time. But is it worth it? Absolutely. You simply can't get the Facebook-level of information for ad buys on radio or TV. Plus social ad buying is an interactive cycle, allowing brands to adjust campaigns and approaches over time based on what's working and what's not." 

Sysomos, a Canadian company, has a specific focus on social marketing metrics, and does use APIs to aggregate data at speed. "In social," Jenkins told me, "visibility is actually improving. The APIs have evolved. Previously it would be a matter of downloading data and copying and pasting." 

While social is still young, she said, "it's potentially rich if ads are properly targeted." But it's also complicated. A brand might use a standard media agency for TV and social buys, another agency for a one-off campaign. For a global or even just regional brands, there are likely to be different agencies making buys in different currencies. Using APIs, Sysomos can provide real-time visibility into the performance of content across channels and regions.

"Brands can see the metrics themselves," she said, and the real benefit is optimization: "Repurpose and republish." To be fair, "agencies are already getting smart at doing this effectively. They don't switch [a campaign] on and just let it run any more. It's not pre-set, but adjustable." But they can't be "holding data hostage" any more.

CMOs: It's Up to You
"It's on the CMO," was Gansca's simple message. The CMO should be the "only master" of the brand's marketing metrics. At the end of the day, she said, the CMO needs to tell publishers and agencies: "I want to use this data provider. Ultimately, the industry won't change unless CMOs demand it."

As for how ready Facebook is to change, we'll need to wait and see.

This article first appeared in DMN.