Why Impressions and “Likes” Are Like Sperm

sperm swimming toward dollar signFrom the Desk of Katie Paine

When I tried to get Siri to remind me to write this post, she informed me, “That’s not nice.”  So, reader be warned: Siri thinks sperm isn’t nice.

Which is how I feel about impressions and “likes.”

I was listening to a Radiolab story about why males of every species produce so many sperm. Somehow my brain went from there to wondering why companies continue to focus on producing millions of impressions, when so many are wasted.  Think of the millions in sponsorship dollars that are wasted on people like me. Who, for instance, buy running shoes by paying attention to the salesperson, rather than the brand.

It’s one thing when a company like Procter & Gamble focuses on impressions, because they have  50 years worth of “big” data. P&G’s product marketing managers know precisely how many bottles of shampoo or bars of soap they will sell when they expose a percentage of their target audience to three critical elements:

  1. a brand mention,
  2. a brand recommendation, or
  3. a desirable visual.

But even they recognize the inefficiency of shouting ever louder at their consumers. In 1999 their research showed that earned media from targeted PR efforts was six times more effective than paid advertising. More recently they have focused on customer engagement. By all accounts their Old Spice Guy social media campaign was a success. The agency that created the campaign touted millions of YouTube views, Tweets, likes, etc. as its measures of success. But in the end, it was the engagement, the actual interaction with the brand, that drove word of mouth and ultimate market share.

The evidence that impressions don’t matter keeps growing. According to the latest data from Comscore, almost half of all online ads are never seen by website visitors, and even fewer at many lower-tier sites. The same research also found that “when users interact with ads — be it hovering over or clicking to launch the content, playing a video or scrolling through images — brands achieve conversion rates of 0.49%. By comparison, the conversion rate measured on the basis of gross impressions was just 0.17%, barely a third as likely to result in a sale.

Let’s just think about this for a minute.  Not to belabor the analogy, but go back to those sperm. Their mission in life is to make a connection with an egg. There needs to be so many of them because survival of the fittest sperm ensures survival of the species. The same can not be said for brands. Companies and organizations that spent the most on buying impressions do not necessarily survive. No one ever accused Polaroid, Circuit City, or Tower Records of being silent in their marketplaces.

The problem is that sperm are not efficient, but companies are supposed to be. A system in which you have gazillions of brand messages competing against each other to try to make a human connection ends up simply confusing the audience and wasting a great deal of money.

But, unlike humans, brands do have a better alternative; they can create a lot more eggs, if you will. More real connections with your customers or stakeholders via far more efficient methods, i.e., more opportunities for real human engagement.

Happy measuring,


Katie Paine

(image: list dose)

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