They have been talking for a while about the death of the 30 second commercial. And social media were not the first technologies that inspired such claims.Yet, the size of Facebook with its tightly connected ‘anatomy’ has made these claims more vociferous. (The average degree of separation between any two people on Facebook is just 3.8, means that just in four steps a message can actually travel from anyone to anyone else, on average).

A recent post exemplifying this refrain, claims that Facebook promotion ( paid ads + all other kinds of messages) deliver 70 times more impressions ( eyeballs that see the ad) for the same cost than an ad on prime time television in the UK ( on coronation street) and 180 times more impressions than the same campaigns in the US . They argue that a well run Facebook campaign can generate 4 to 5 billion impressions versus the TV campaign that reaches a 100 million for the same duration. The claim is problematic due to the way impressions are counted for the two media.

The Facebook number is reached by counting the people touched directly (who friend or like the brand pages), their friends (who see it in their feeds, comments or messages) and friends of friends of those directly touched. In other words upto 3 levels removed from the campaign. For TV they simply count the number of eyeballs that saw the commercial ( the way marketers have computed ad effectiveness for TV ads for decades). There seems an implied an assumption that prime time television advertising only reaches those who see it directly. However just as Facebook page activity, television advertising too inspires conversations and recommendations through word of mouth that can make it reach a significant multiple of that 100 million, especially over the course of the year. In fact, the worth of one such conversation or recommendation (including on Facebook) ‘may’ be worth a few hundred Facebook impressions, a miniscule number of which may actually count themselves. However, obtaining any similar accurate measurement for the extended impact of TV advertising is next to impossible. However, his does not mean that there is no extended impact.

On first degree impressions, TV campaigns clearly achieve much more than the biggest Facebook pages( even Coca-Cola has just 53 million likes). Next, it may be worth pondering why these extended 4 to 5 billion impressions may not really count for a lot. Consider that for each person who likes a brand page, that activity appears on some laundry list of notifications of 16% of their 190 friends (Currently 16% of FB users are able to see such posts, and the average number of friends on FB is 190). A miniscule number of these impressions are likely to be welcomed or even consumed. Those receiving them may be just users who haven’t optimized their news feeds enough to avoid such notifications. Finally the post claims that Facebook itself did not have any data on the third level of sharing (to friends of friends of directly touched). This will be presumably much lower than the 16% on level 1. Think of chance that a friend of your friend is interested in the activity by their friend ( who is not a mutual friend) with a campaign or brand page. Since these data were not available, they used some triangulation to estimate some multipliers, and do not mention either the multipliers (no of people reached further by each person) or the attenuation (what % of people’s friends will receive such a message).

Of course other points worth considering are 1) why people like brand pages on Facebook (to get discounts!) and 2) how did they learn about these brands (surely not exclusively through FB campaigns or noticing friends who liked FB campaigns, but perhaps through prime time advertising and conversations with friends and family). These concerns make the value of these impressions questionable, even if their sheer volume is estimated properly. Of course the same can be argued for TV advertising that people do not want to see, but end up watching.

In sum, the key point here is that just because Facebook due to the traces users leave, allows one to measure how a campaign circulates beyond the first degree impressions and TV does not, one cannot conclude that Facebook campaigns are that much more cost effective than prime time TV.