Social Media in Turmoil
September 26, 2016
By Erik Sass
Between Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, the social media world has had an interesting week or two, with revelations of big mistakes, possible acquisitions, and surprising forays into apparel. The turmoil is more evidence that while social platforms have become a fixture of our everyday lives, the business side of social media is a work in progress and will remain so for some time.
The most troubling news comes from Facebook, which admitted recently that it had exaggerated online video viewing by its users by a substantial margin over a two-year period. Facebook revealed that the numbers it gave marketers for average time spent viewing videos was inflated because the social network's methodology only counted views lasting three seconds or more in the denominator (the number of views), even though views lasting less than three seconds were included in the numerator (total seconds watched). In other words, all the seconds of "scroll-by" not-really-viewing were inappropriately included in the total time viewed.
According to a letter sent to agencies cited by TheWall Street Journal, this elementary arithmetic error meant that Facebook overestimated average video viewing times by 60% to 80%. While the company emphasized that the mistake won't affect billings, as advertisers only pay for views of ten seconds or longer, the skewed results could raise questions about the true popularity of Facebook video – which in turn could make marketers reluctant to spend more in future.
Ultimately, the video measurement error probably won't affect Facebook's profitability, as the world's biggest social network is just too important for marketers to stay away in the long term. But it shows just how much social media remains a "Wild West" for marketers, with virtually no industry-wide standards for measurement and uneven external verification. It also shows how many marketers, typically pressed for time and money, are failing to do their own due diligence when embarking on social media campaigns: in fact Facebook did disclose the three-second standard for average video viewing when it first launched its video dashboard in 2014, although this fact seems to have been lost in the shuffle during Facebook's endless introduction of new video features, placements and formats.
On a somewhat more positive note, in less than a week Twitter went from no suitors (according to news reports) to four potential buyers, as Salesforce, Google, Verizon and Microsoft are all said to be considering acquiring the struggling microblogging and live events platform. While this is obviously good news for Twitter, which has mostly failed to revive its lackluster user growth rate despite numerous changes over the last year, it also suggests that the day of fresh-faced social media startups may be past, giving way to an era of consolidation and lowered expectations.
Indeed, it's hard to avoid the feeling that a sale would basically be a death knell for the unrealized promise of Twitter, as the new owner (whoever it turns out to be) is unlikely to wager much on innovative programs and new products. Google's previous forays into social media have mostly been notable for their failure, while Microsoft and Verizon have even less experience in the field; all three are more likely to treat Twitter as a useful adjunct to their own core services than a platform in its own right. Similarly, Salesforce would likely view Twitter as a source for data on its 300 million+ existing users rather than focusing on trying to win new ones.
Last but not least, last week Snapchat revealed a new name, "Snap," reflecting the messaging app's expanding ambitions as it experiments with wearable mobile technology. The flagship product, "Spectacles," are smart glasses with cameras that allow users to automatically record what they see, in 10-second installments and up to 30 seconds total, without having to fumble with their phone.
Of course, the hi-tech glasses immediately summon memories of Google Glass, the ill-fated attempt to introduce wearable tech to consumers, but Snap hopes a number of features will help avoid the pitfalls which led to social ostracism of Glass-wearers (who became known, not at all affectionately, as Glassholes). For one thing a circle of lights around the camera will illuminate whenever the wearer is recording, supposedly making it obvious to other people when they are being filmed. Whether this is enough to banish the "creepy" factor remains to be seen: personally I don't want to have to monitor my neighbors' eyewear to determine whether my actions are being recorded for posterity.
"Social Media in Turmoil." MediaPost, 9/26/16.
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