I’ve spent a good percentage of the last month or so on the road, talking to smart communicators about the latest in measurement. Whether they’re from Lubbock or Ljubljana, Bethesda or Bucharest, there is one question that always comes up:

“How do I really measure reach?”

The frequency of the question points to the depth of the problem. Back in the day, when the only magazines we could subscribe to were printed on paper magazines and arrived in our mailboxes, publishers could tell advertisers how many subscribers received each issue. That didn’t mean that the great story mentioning your new product was actually read by everyone—or anyone. But there was a tacit agreement between publishers and advertisers that circulation figures were an acceptable proxy for “reach.” Even if they didn’t really tell you whether you had reached anyone.

When publishing moved online, that agreement morphed into a widely-believed fiction that the number of clicks on a page was pretty much the same thing as someone getting a magazine in their mailbox. Of course, the numbers were bigger. And that was great; marketers always like bigger numbers, right?

Today this convenient untruth has, as they say, jumped the shark. We routinely see reports in which promoters claim to have “reached” 7 billion people, expecting us to believe that every human on earth had an opportunity to see your news. Even though 16 percent don’t have electricity and only 40 percent have access to the Internet. Not to mention that maybe 1 percent—if you’re lucky—care about what you have to say anyway.

The problem is that most services, like Alexa and the recently deceased Compete, that report on the daily or monthly traffic to an online news site, report only on the root domain, not the subdomain. So, if you have a travel client who just got mentioned in The New York Times Travel Section, you’ll get the number of unique visitors per month (338 million) to the front page of the The New York Times itself. Not the actual number of visitors to the Travel Section.

The other challenge is cost. To get monthly visitor numbers from Alexis is $149 a month. Alternatives like Comscore and Quantcast can be even more.

So, the simple answer is that, in today’s reality, measuring reach accurately is impossible. Which leaves marketers and communications professionals with two choices:

  1. Agree on a fiction to pretend to believe in, or
  2. Measure something else.

We recommend, of course, measuring something else. Much better to not measure reach at all. If possible, jump past it to something more useful.

Because remember, measuring reach isn’t the same as measuring the effectiveness of your program. You haven’t proven that you’ve done anything to help your organization bring in more revenue, save money, changed anyone’s mind, influenced behavior, or accomplished any other business goals. Which is where measurement must begin and end.

In the old days, reach was essentially the great equalizer. You made decisions about where to put your effort based on what was shown to be the most effective way to reach the target audience. But today, if reach is fiction, then how do you answer questions like: “Should we do a podcast or get on Instagram?” or “Which is better: Snapchat or WhatsApp?” You’ll have to read the rest of this issue to find out (but here’s a tip: Snapchat here, podcasts here). ∞

(Thanks to MemoryCatcher on Pixabay for the image.)

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