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Facebook Is Big, But It Can’t Reach Young People Who Don’t Exist

A new report comparing Facebook’s purported reach to U.S. Census data may feed into advertiser skepticism.

Facebook Is Big, But It Can’t Reach Young People Who Don’t Exist

Facebook’s Ad Manager site tells advertisers that it has a potential reach of 41 million 18- to 24 year-olds in the United States, even though U.S. census data shows that, last year, there were only 31 million people living in the country between these ages. That’s according to a new report by Pivotal Research Group senior analyst Brian Wieser, who says the social network also claims a reach of 60 million 25- to 34 year-olds, even though U.S. census data has that number at 45 million.

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The report had many scratching their heads after it was picked up by Reuters and made the rounds on social media. Is Facebook promising it can reach more people than actually exist? In response, the company sent me the following statement:

“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 a business might run. They are not designed to match population or census estimates. We are always working to improve our estimates.”

Media agency sources on background told me that advertisers don’t typically use census data to inform their ad buying decisions between media, so comparing Facebook reach with the census isn’t especially instructive. Such data can be helpful from a research perspective, and used to understand how to target certain audiences, but it’s seen more as a signpost, not something brands use to match ad targets to.

PHD USA’s chief investment officer Craig Atkinson says his clients are much more interested in using Facebook for its sophisticated audience targeting capabilities—they’re seeking behavioral audiences, not simply age/gender/demography. “Our clients are looking for allergy suffers, vacation intenders, movie enthusiasts and people with a car about to come off lease,” says Atkinson. “Once that level of precision is available, exactly how many 18-34 year old females that exist in the U.S. is a much less interesting number. That’s where the true power of Facebook lies.”

Still, while Pivotal’s report probably won’t scare off many advertisers, for those who are questioning what their digital investment is getting them, this kind of thing can feed into existing skepticism. Ultimately what media agency sources say is that it’s another reason to push for more significant third-party certification of Facebook and Google’s advertising metrics, like how Nielsen measures TV audiences.

This is not the first time Facebook has faced criticism over its audience data. Last year, the company apologized for overstating how long users spent watching videos on Facebook. As part of that apology, Facebook said it would form a “measurement council” of ad agency executives and brand marketers to develop metrics suited to the needs of advertisers.

In his note to investors Wieser wrote: “While Facebook’s measurement issues won’t necessarily deter advertisers from spending money with Facebook, they will help traditional TV sellers justify existing budget shares and could restrain Facebook’s growth in video ad sales on the margins.”

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This story has been updated with additional input from PHD USA

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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