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Inside digital media’s greatest myths

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Digital media has its fair share of dubious statistics and myths that are bandied about. But often there’s little evidence to back them up. Let’s unpack a few.

“Audience reach”

Publishers and platforms alike are known to inflate their reach and audience sizes where possible, typically in attempt to impress advertisers, investors and their audience itself. But ad buyers say they’re getting wise to their tactics, which often include using tricks to boost their traffic numbers and comScore rankings. Facebook was left with egg on its face last year when it claimed it ad products could reach 100 million 18-34 year-olds in the U.S., despite the fact only 76 million exist, according to U.S. census data. And with the rise of fake traffic and bots, ad fraud experts point to tiny sites on ad exchanges supposedly serving billions of ad impressions each month. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

“The long tail”

Much of digital media and advertising technology is predicated on the concept of the long tail, which implies that online audiences are highly fragmented and spend their time visiting hundreds of thousands of niche websites that cater to increasingly specific interests. But in reality that premise doesn’t seem to be holding true. Research by measurement firms such as comScore suggests people in the U.S. spend most of their time visiting a handful of the same websites, and the pattern is even more pronounced with mobile apps. Other signs also point to a lack of real-life audiences on many long-tail sites — their viewability rates are typically considerably lower than those for larger sites, for example.

“Digital video rivals TV”

100 million “views” on YouTube or Facebook isn’t the same as 100 million TV viewers, despite what most digital platforms would argue. When reporting “viewers”, most digital platforms simply tally up video starts or 3-second views, while TV is held to a much higher standard and measured at average viewers per minute of an entire show. Yes, people are consuming more digital video, whether that’s edited content or live sports. But digital video platforms continue to twist the numbers to suit their agendas.

“People want to engage with brands on social media”

It’s no secret that paid ads on social networks have paid dividends for many marketers in recent years, but the rise of bots, paid likes, fake views, Instagram cells and other nefarious practices have cast doubt on the reliability of data suggesting consumers have any interest in proactively “engaging” with brands on social media. The same could be said for sponsored content and influencer campaigns, which are subject to similar measurement distortions. The idea that consumers are clamoring to interact with brands on social media is getting harder to argue.

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