Facebook Ad Reach Is More Than U.S. Census Bureau Data in All 50 States (Report)

Facebook’s ad reach figures outpace U.S. Census estimates for every single state by anywhere from 3 percent to 42 percent

Confused by Facebook's ad reach estimates? So is the Video Advertising Bureau VladimirFLoyd/iStock

Facebook’s issues with reporting ad reaches larger than the actual population base appear to be even more prevalent, according to a new report from the Video Advertising Bureau.

Early last month, Pivotal Research analyst Brian Wieser pointed out discrepancies between Facebook’s ad reach and U.S. Census Bureau data, including:

  • Facebook claims that it can reach 41 million U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 24, while U.S. Census data pegs the total population of that age group at 31 million.
  • The social network also claimed that it can reach 60 million U.S. adults 25 through 34, while the U.S. Census total for that demographic is 35 million.

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

The VAB took a closer look in the report it released Monday, and its findings included:

  • Facebook’s ad reach figures outpace U.S. Census estimates for every single state in the U.S., by anywhere from 3 percent to 42 percent.

  • While Facebook cited visitors from different areas as one of the reasons for its reach topping U.S. Census figures, the same reach figures are generated when advertisers select “everyone” in the U.S. or users who “live” in the U.S.
  • The gap between Facebook’s ad reach figures and U.S. Census date for users 18 through 34 is “much more pronounced within the 10 most populous cities.”

  • Facebook’s estimated daily reach is two times to 12 times larger than what it should be “based on basic media math.”
  • When preparing a demographic-targeted, one-day, $5,000 ad buy on Facebook, there is a gap of more than 10 million adults between 18 and 34—1.9 million to 12 million—between the low and high ranges.

The VAB said in the conclusion of its report, “Whether this is truly another metrics glitch remains to be seen. However, with questions of trust regarding ad-tech platforms at an all-time high among many marketers, our analysis provides another instance where first-party data should at least be questioned, or even challenged, particularly when the numbers don’t align with universally accepted metrics such as U.S. Census Bureau population data and basic media math.

And VAB president and CEO Sean Cunningham said in a statement emailed to Social Pro Daily: “It’s difficult to understand how a precision platform, such as Facebook, could continue to miscalculate these numbers time and time again. Rather, there appears to be a systematic misrepresentation of data across the board, at a scale unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Advertisers need to know that the data and metrics they’re viewing are valid, and third-party verification, rather than simply accepting data at face value, is the only way to ensure that advertisers get what they pay for.”

Facebook had not yet responded to a request for comment at the time of this post.

david.cohen@adweek.com David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.