Facebook Claims It Reaches More People Than the U.S. Census Data Says Exist

An advertising analyst pointed out the discrepancy

An analyst pointed out a discrepancy between the number of young people Facebook says it reaches and the number of people that Census data say exists. Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall; Source: Facebook
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How many young people live in the United States?

It depends who you ask.

According to Facebook, there are 41 million adults between the ages of 18 and 24. However, according to data from the U.S. census, there are just 31 million. Facebook also says there are 60 million between the ages of 25 and 34, while the U.S. census puts its estimate at just 35 million.

The difference was pointed out by senior advertising analyst Brian Wieser at Pivotal Research, who in a report distributed via email said the discrepancy was not widely known by various agency executives he spoke with about the topic. While the difference might not deter media buyers from spending money on the platform—which Facebook often touts for its “people-based” approach for targeting—Wieser said it might not help the social network with its pitch to win over more traditional TV advertising dollars. (Over the past few weeks, Facebook has been rolling out its Watch tab, which features original content that media companies and other content producers are creating specifically for Facebook.)

Wieser said “awareness of general measurement issues” could cause larger advertisers to require more third-party measurement through Nielsen, comScore and others.

“Measurement issues at Facebook have been top-of-mind for many of those same marketers over the past year given revelations around over-stated average video viewing time, video viewing completions, miscalculations of organic page reach and other data which impacts how budgets are planned,” he wrote.

In an email explaining the findings, Wieser said he found the difference after reading in Australia’s AdNews that the trade publication had found that Facebook said it reached 1.7 million more people between the ages of 16 and 39 than the country’s own census data had existing on record.

The remarks came as part of a broader look at Facebook’s recent video initiatives, as the company pitches itself as a place for premium video content—pitting it against the likes of YouTube, Snapchat and Twitter, which are all also investing more heavily in original content.

“As the medium with the most significant budgets historically, television budgets have served as a natural target,” Wieser wrote. “Unfortunately for Facebook, merely reaching a large number of people was always going to be insufficient to accomplish its goals, as TV advertisers generally want reach paired with video ad units while also borrowing the brand equity associated with premium content.”

So why is there a difference? Facebook’s age data is self-reported, meaning that some younger users might say they’re older than they actually are. Also, Facebook’s ad targeting is based on location-based data for both residents and visitors that aren’t counted by a country’s census.

According to Facebook, the tool is an estimator for campaign planning rather than something that quantifies officially how many people a business can reach in a given campaign. (Facebook also pointed out it’s not a billable product.)

“Reach estimations are based on a number of factors, including Facebook user behaviors, user demographics, location data from devices, and other factors,” the spokesperson said in a statement emailed to Adweek. “They are designed to estimate how many people in a given area are eligible to see an ad a business might run. They are not designed to match population or census estimates. We are always working to improve our estimates.”

The report comes as Facebook remains in troubled waters over the miscalculations, fake news and other worries that have some of the biggest advertisers in the world questioning how much they should spend on the platform. Facebook is also reportedly getting ready to roll out new brand safety tools next week at the Dmexco ad-tech conference in Germany.

@martyswant martin.swant@adweek.com Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.