Q&A with Facebook Head of Measurement Research Development and Partnerships Sean Bruich

As Facebook puts more emphasis on monetization and more advertisers are spending on its platform, measurement is increasingly important.

The social network is still so new and comes with unique ad types and its own vocabulary, so many advertisers still aren’t sure how it fits in with the rest of their marketing efforts. The Facebook measurement team is working to put its ads in a more familiar context for advertisers and apply its research findings to offer better ad types and systems.

We spoke to Head of Measurement Research Development and Partnerships Sean Bruich about the questions Facebook is trying to answer, the value of a Like, how Facebook ads compare to more traditional channels and what needs to happen as marketers begin thinking cross-platform instead of in silos.

The following is an edited transcript from that interview.

Tell me more about your role and what your team does.

My team is the research development team, we also work on partnerships with third-party research companies like Nielsen and Datalogix. Our goal is twofold: to help build the right tools to help advertisers buy media to capture the value they’re trying to get, and the second piece to build out the measurement systems that help quantify that value and optimize campaigns, not just for e-commerce transactions, but a broader set of marketing outcomes like offline sales. It’s pretty simple, we’re trying to solve how you value an ad campaign online if one of your objectives is offline sales impact or one your objectives is staying top of mind. And the second piece is how do you translate all of those things that you know about other forms of marketing and understand whether online is accomplishing those same goals and how you would execute against those goals online.

It seems your latest research has really focused on how successful campaigns aren’t just about clicks, but reach and frequency and other factors. Are you finding that’s resonating in the industry and advertisers are changing their strategy?

Definitely. I think what happened was digital came up as this really specific type of marketing and there was a lot of building up of the infrastructure there, the direct response stuff. But it’s getting harder and harder to plan your campaign because there are more ways to reach consumers. It’s not just TV and online. It’s TV and Facebook and tablets and smartphones. I think there’s a growing realization on the part of marketers that they want to reach people across these devices because if they’re reaching the same person on each of these and counting it as a distinct person, that’s not good. It becomes really hard to plan an ad campaign if you’re just buying in these silos.

So that’s what Nielsen’s cross-platform ratings address, and over time you’re going to be able to say ‘OK, for this type of consumer I can reach them more cheaply with one TV impression on this show and then a couple ad impression on Facebook mobile’ versus saying ‘I’m going to do my TV buy, my online buy and I’m not going to know how those overlap.

I think you’re starting to see publishers adopt this way of seeing the world that looks more like traditional media, and you’re starting to see advertisers do this. Unilever has talked about this very publicly. They buy a lot of television, but they want to buy online the same way and they want to use Nielsen to guarantee or at least assess that what they’re getting from publishers what they’re promised, that they’re getting the reach. Because if you’re just buying impressions those could all be going to one person or people outside your demographic target.

So last year was about identifying factors that are more important than clicks, and I remember the year before that Facebook did a lot of research that talked about the value of friends of fans. What’s important for Facebook to measure and get across next? 

I think it’s putting all of those things together. Describing the keys to generating offline sales by different audiences. I think so far when you think of mass market campaigns, they’re not really focused on particular subsets of consumers. One of the powerful things about digital is that rather than offering one piece of content that sort of works for everybody, you can separate out your audiences. You’re still reaching everybody, but it’s going to be the right message for the right person at the right frequency. The sum of which should be more effective than a ‘safe’ message or a somewhat effective message for both.

That’s creative, but I think the same thing applies for how many impressions you should serve somebody — are you willing to pay a lot of money to acquire a new customer versus remind an existing customer? I think some of the data and ad serving pieces of the web are going to be really powerful at getting you the scale of mass marketing but actually getting to the precision that has never existed before, whether it’s more or less impressions or different creative or different flighting of the ad campaign.

Are those things Facebook can do for advertisers or are some of these things so specific that it’s more about creating the tools for each advertiser to do them for themselves and with their partners?

I think it has to be both. One of the things I like doing is looking back to how TV came about and how those things were figured out. And they did both for TV. There were some great industry researchers who found some general things to be true, flighting of ad campaigns, effective frequency. That narrows the window of all possibilities to ‘in general we see these things to be true.’ I think we’re starting to see some of those things converge for Facebook. We know that the range for advertisers is ‘this big’ rather than ‘this big’ but for each particular campaign, they’re going to have to figure out exactly.

A common thing I hear from advertisers is that Facebook doesn’t share enough data to make it possible to track and measure the things they want. Is that changing or is it more about moving slowly and working with the right partners?

Certainly we have to be careful at Facebook given the data situation. We’ve had a lot of success working with really trusted and well-respected third parties. They are going to do a good job to make sure data is treated well, they maintain privacy protections and have security things figured out. The flipside is that we also want to partner with people who are going to be really compelling to the advertisers. Why work with Nielsen? Well because Nielsen already works so closely with these advertisers on television media buys, they have a lot of credibility to say ‘if you shift some dollars to Facebook or online or digital, you could increase efficiency.’

The issue with that approach though is that it focuses on a few major brands. How do you take the learnings that you get from big clients and apply it to a broader set of advertisers?

That’s exactly what we’re worried about every day. I think it falls into a couple of buckets. One of the things you can do is provide a combination of scaled products plus case studies or general learnings, which is really important. Not every advertiser is going to need Nielsen XCR (cross-platform ratings), but for Unilever it matters a ton. They need XCR and it needs to be incredibly precise. On the other hand, managing to reach and frequency, that probably matters for every advertiser. Insights can help for someone who just manages on Facebook to make sure they’re monitoring reach and frequency.

So for example a local pub in Palo Alto, we want to make sure they’re aware of our research findings and try to put it in the context of what they already know about marketing, but we also want to provide some very low cost tools that maybe don’t do the same thing as some these bigger research partnerships, but at least allow them to manage their campaigns in a way that drives better ROI. It’s about putting the research things that we figure out into our tools. So with social context, we know that delivers more effective advertising. We know that from Datalogix and Nielsen surveys. That doesn’t mean everyone needs a custom Nielsen study, but we need to make sure there’s a white paper that describes the impact and then we’ve got to make sure that the tools we offer and insights show social coverage and our marketing materials teach them how to do more Sponsored Stories.

And actually the latest version of the ad tool by default automatically creates Sponsored Stories when people go in to make an ad.

Yeah. Another thing we found through research two years ago was that lightweight users respond very strongly to advertising, and so we actually made a change to how our ad server picks how to deliver impressions. We were able to increase the reach of ad campaigns and increase the lift advertisers would see in ad recall or other brand effect metrics based on the fact that we could do a better job of choosing ‘should we serve an extra impression to this user or serve two users each an impression?’ We were able to figure out optimal user targeting and frequency, and we saw substantial increase in value in these ads that we delivered.

It seems like there are a lot of things we could see as a result of your research, for instance in the ad tool, but there’s probably so much more that we won’t see, but that can just be built into how ads are served.

The nice thing about measurement is that it is really accretive across all these groups. Measurement means that advertisers can plan better campaigns. Facebook’s able to build better ad products. And then users are seeing better ads at a more reasonable or more optimal frequency. They’re not seeing ads they don’t want to see, the creative gets better. And so the whole thing rises. I think that’s a really nice piece of measurement. When I go home at night that’s what makes me happiest. You build this system and it’s not a zero-sum game, it’s all summing together making the system better. The more measurement you have, the more you learn, the more it improves and improves and improves.

What are the biggest or most common questions or doubts that people have that you guys are really focused on?

The biggest thing by far is ‘how much do I know about marketing can I translate to Facebook?’ It’s a great question because it’s a totally different way of delivering an ad and communicating with people, but it’s still marketing. You look at an agency and they’re experts in how to do TV or magazine and they’ve been doing that for years, so it’s not really about the data, it’s about instinct: ‘This is a good ad, this is a bad ad, this is a smart way to spend our money, this is a bad way to spend our money.’ And not many people have instincts on digital and certainly not for these big consumer-oriented ad campaigns.

I think that’s one of the biggest questions, so a lot of our research is around trying to create some comparability to the other options advertisers have. So when we did creative research, rather than invent a new scoring system around social, we applied the Advertising Research Foundation’s creative best practices guidelines. We started with that scoring system and asked, can marketers using that scoring system predict which ads would be successful in the Facebook market? We found that, yes, these things were predictive. Strength of creative can be described in this traditional way and actually do perform better and marketers actually fortunately can translate a lot of their expertise.

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