Your Impressions Suck: Here Are 5 Simple Metrics that Actually Mean Something


Many of today’s communication metrics are worthless, as you’ll read more and more often in various media and marketing journals. My favorite instance of this refers to video views and Facebook’s latest metric  (“peak concurrent viewers”) as “the greatest vanity metric in the history of vanity metrics.”

Which is the problem with impression counts and all the other false and inflated metrics that serve as proxies for “reach.” Their major value is as numerical bling, numbers that dazzle rather than provide useful information.

Back in the day when circulations were audited, and “reach” meant actual reach into your actual target audience, these numbers made some sense. But not a lot, actually, since publishers and advertising agencies frequently inflated them with multipliers derived from the alleged sharing of a magazine or newspaper by several people. Audited circulation numbers employed the preposterous and self-serving assumption that every page in a publication was read and then shared among 3-5 people.

Even in the ’60s and ’70s this was a completely unrealistic scenario. Today no one reads magazines cover-to-cover, unless they’re stuck on an international flight and forgot to charge their Kindle.

Which is why brands started looking at engagement as an alternative to impressions. You measure engagement with any metric that indicates someone took an action after viewing your content (e.g., actions like shares, likes, comments, etc.)

The problem is that, after all those years of presenting results in millions of inflated impressions, the engagement numbers seem tiny in comparison. Especially if you adhere to the Conclave standards and calculate engagement by using the percentage of your total likes or followers that are actually engaged. You’re doing really well if you can get above 5%.

And, I get it: It’s a hard sell presenting 5 as a great number when you’ve been reporting 5,000,000 for years. So you’ve got to provide some context and meaning for your new number. Which is what we’ve done for you below. Here are some intelligent options to inflated impressions numbers that are still pretty simple to come up with, but actually have some meaning behind them.

Step 1: Start with the factual approach

Fact # 1: Social impressions aren’t real

In 2014, in an address to PRSA’s International Conference, Mike Buckley, Facebook’s Vice President of Global Business Communications, was asked how much of all the content on Facebook is actually read by a human being. His response: 3%.

Which means you do not reach the 100,000 people who Like your page with every piece of content you post.

What’s to Like? Perhaps worse, research shows that many people Like content just because they want to let the poster know they support them, not because they’ve actually read or viewed the post itself. Tyler Mulvey and Kevin Hill of Rowan University conducted an online survey to determine just why students decide to like a brand on Facebook. They discovered, among other results:

  • Younger users were more likely to like a Facebook Fan Page to obtain information regarding company’s new products, etc., than were older users.
  • Females were more likely to like a page to get coupons, whereas males were more likely to like a page to get hidden content such as exclusive videos or movie trailers.
  • Other motivators to kike were free shipping, information, and contests or sweepstakes.

So—news flash—your Facebook posts and messages don’t even reach all the people who claim they like them.

Fact #2: Most impressions counts are pure fiction

Anytime you report impression counts over 1 billion or so, you’re getting into the realm of ridiculous fiction. There are only 7 billion people on the planet; 1. 2 billion of them lack electricity and only 20% own a PC. So, assuming your story was so riveting that everyone with online access saw it, and it was translated into everyone’s native languages, you’re still only reaching 1.18 billion.

To avoid this, start with the target audience you are trying to reach and calculate what percentage of them you are actually reaching. I’m guessing it’s a lot smaller number than the ones you’ve been reporting, but it’s a lot more meaningful.

For example: An insurance company that only sells to people in the U.S. would need to exclude any non-U.S. Twitter followers in its calculations. Similarly, an adult beverage company should create an age filter to ensure that they aren’t counting minors in their numbers. Without such filters, the data is meaningless.

Fact #3: Too many impressions can be a waste of time

Unless you’re selling mass-market products, which the vast majority of PR people do not, reaching millions of eyeballs might be damaging to your business. If you’re a B2B company or a specialty service provider and you claim to reach 10 million eyeballs, then what would you do if they all actually responded to your call to action? Sure, reaching your target audience is good for general awareness. But reaching millions of people who will never buy your product is very likely a waste of time.

Fact #4: Some of those impressions are not helping your business

There are lots of easy ways to get lots of impressions, and get lots of awareness, too. But if those impressions and awareness aren’t good for business, why do you want them? Read “Not All That Glitters Is Gold: 5 Companies That Got Lots of Impressions They Wish They Hadn’t.”

Step 2: Offer up better alternatives

Start fresh. Get the CFO on your side by pointing out how unrealistic it is that you or your agency is claiming that 20 times the current population of the planet watched your video. At the same time, start a dialog with sales, marketing, and the CFO to agree on some numbers that are realistic and are tied to business drivers. Here are some of my favorites and the rationale behind them:

Alternative #1: Track conversions

For most PR programs, the fallback goal is “to generate awareness.” But the only way to really measure awareness is to survey your target audience on a regular basis, and that’s a considerable effort. So instead we often resort to reporting “impressions,” based on the fallacious assumption that impressions cause awareness.

Ask yourself and your leadership team: What good is awareness if it doesn’t drive action—or at least consideration or preference?

Why not measure something that indicates consideration or preference, like clicks to a specific page, downloads of a white paper, or engagement with a social media site? Such information is far more valuable than some vague awareness-maybe numbers.

It’s not hard to do: Just track traffic to specific pages by setting up PR-specific goals in Google Analytics or whatever web analytic platform you use. If possible, tag content in a way that makes it easy to know that it comes from your PR efforts. You’ll be able to report that your efforts at least increased interest, if not actual leads.

Alternative #2: Track messages that drive action

We’ve talked often in these pages about creating a Media Quality Score—a.k.a. a Kick Butt Index—that reflects the messages and content that sales and marketing knows will drive purchases.

If your organization pays for advertising, then it already knows what messages, images, and style drive sales, or at least interest, in your product. That’s what goes (or should go) into the creative brief for every ad. So, if the same elements show up in your earned media coverage, then presumably they engender a similar response.

Alternative #3: Track share of voice

The argument in favor of share of voice is a simple one: You can’t generate awareness, preference, or consideration if the competition is dominating the media coverage. So, if you show that you get at least your fair share of voice, then the implication is that you have a shot at dominating the conversations in your market place.

The simplest way is to do a Google News Search around the product category you’re in, then count the number of times your key competitors are mentioned vs. the number of times you’re mentioned. Or have a monitoring company do it for you. If you have a little more budget, you will want to categorize the mentions as either “desirable” (that means positive, balanced, or neutral) or “undesirable” (which means negative).

If all else fails, ask me

And if none of this works, join our monthly Measurement Hour live chat on Wednesday June 22nd at 12pm (EST) until 1pm. I’d be happy to brainstorm other ways to get you and leadership on the right track. ∞

About Author

Katie Paine

I've been called The Queen Of Measurement, but I prefer Seshat, the Goddess.