An interesting post by Erick Schonfeld at TechCrunch details how
Nielsen has been “gushing” about Facebook since it partnered with the
giant social network on a service called BrandLift, which is designed to help advertisers measure the effectiveness of their ad campaigns on the site.

One report Nielsen issued after it teamed up with Facebook highlights
just how much time consumers are spending on social networks, and
Facebook in particular. Another provided data showing that affluent
consumers are more likely to be using it than MySpace. The
obvious question: is Nielsen presenting objective data to advertisers or
is it overhyping its newest partner?

Companies like Nielsen and comScore are extremely important to advertisers, agencies and publishers alike. To some, they’re a little bit too important. After all, their data often heavily influences media buying decisions. Which means that if Nielsen is going out of its way to extol the virtues of Facebook, it could potentially throw the company’s credibility into question.

The question then is whether Nielsen is sticking to reporting the facts or whether it is now actively engaging in spin to benefit a partner. And that’s a tough question to answer. Facebook is wildly popular and few can question that advertisers have good reason to target consumers on social networks. It’s where they are online, after all. So the Nielsens of the world have to cover this space and they can’t ignore that Facebook is massive.

Yet a look behind the numbers does raise some questions. The goal of advertising is not advertising for advertising’s sake. While it may be worth pointing out that Facebook was the top social network for advertisers in 10 out of 13 industries in August as measured by ad impressions, ad impressions alone don’t really tell us much. Neither does the fact that Facebook apparently has a more “upscale” audience than MySpace and Twitter, social networks that are both used quite differently by consumers.

Going even further, it’s worth pointing out that Facebook has historically received a bad rap when it comes to ad performance. That’s not to say that there aren’t ads that do well but one cannot discount the fact that a handful of companies reportedly account for a large chunk of the company’s revenue. This is a reminder that aggregate numbers are not always indicative of broad trends.

At the end of the day, I think it’s valid to point out that Nielsen seems to be doing its new partner Facebook a lot of favors with its research and PR. Whether it’s selectively focusing in on metrics that overhype Facebook’s strengths, while ignoring Facebook’s weaknesses, is a matter of personal perception. I think a reasonable conclusion is that there might not be a malevolent conspiracy behind Nielsen’s coverage of Facebook given that Facebook is so prominent anyway, but it demonstrates that there really is no such thing as objectivity when it comes to data these days.

And that is precisely why advertisers and agencies need to be smart about their media buying. Nielsen and comScore data is very valuable, but nothing is a substitute for common sense. Plan campaigns thoughtfully, choose the right metrics to monitor and figure out an acceptable formula for evaluating ROI. If a campaign succeeds based on the chosen criteria, scale it. If it doesn’t, no amount of Nielsen and comScore data should distract you from the obvious.

Photo credit: jaycameron via Flickr.