David Wilding: Algorithms do not always provide an engaging solution

You have to feel for Facebook. Imagine being asked the same question over and over, day after day and not really being able to answer it definitively. In its case, of course, that question is about the value of all these fans that we've all been so busily acquiring.

David Wilding
David Wilding

So it has just published some research alongside comScore on "the power of like". There's some interesting titbits in the research that back up common-sense intuition (news feeds are more important than fan pages, for example, and the real benefit of a fan is often as a gateway for their friends to be exposed to your brand), but I was particularly struck by the assertion that brands should measure the resulting "reach and frequency of social media brand impressions".

Seriously? Has it come to this? Here we have potentially one of the richest sources of human insight, engagement, intentions and behaviour, and they propose we reduce it down to the equivalent GRPs you get from getting fans to inadvertently spam their friends' news feeds.

Now, I don't necessarily blame Facebook for doing this - in many ways, it is simply responding to what clients and agencies are asking. And with "F-commerce" still in its infancy, it's difficult to show too many examples of a direct sales uplift just yet. But even so, opting for the bluntest measure available shows a depressing lack of collective ambition.

It's not just on Facebook, though. In the main, earned media's currency, from traditional PR pieces to You Tube views, remains anchored down in "equivalent media value" rather than elevated up by the perceived benefits of endorsement.

Our collective determination to reduce engagement into a cold number suggests that if we can't quantify a benefit as a figure on a spreadsheet, then it has no value.

But let's extend that logic to everyday life. Can you tell me what the ROI is of your health, a smile or an unexpected compliment? And more to the point, would you want to hang out with somebody who could?

My fear is that engagement gets squeezed out of media's future - a victim of automation and efficient optimisation on one side, and an attempt to boil everything down to reach and frequency on the other.

But take human values out, and media and brands are much poorer for it. So, yes, of course we should use data and algorithms to improve what we do, but it's vital to retain a human hand at the tiller.

So let's hear much less about "equivalent media value" and think much more about "equivalent human value". Much harder to measure, I grant you, but far more important. As for the value of a fan on Facebook? It's what you choose to make it.

Russell Davies is away.

David Wilding is the head of planning at PHD.