The Problem With Impressions

Why Now Is the Time for a Different Approach to Ad Metrics

By Published on .

Too often my meetings with online media network salespeople sound something like this:

Me: "So how did our campaign do?"

Salesperson: "Great. You performed within range -- getting 1/10 of 1% response based on number of impressions delivered."

Me: "Um, how is that a great result?" (C'mon … what am I supposed to do with 1/10th of 1% CTR anyway?)

Salesperson: "Well that 's based on 500,000 impressions and its well within the range of other brand campaigns."

Me: "Can you tell me how many real people were reached by the ad buy? After all, impressions don't buy -- real people do."

Salesperson: (Frustrated) "We don't have that information. Besides, no one ever asked me that question. We are a branding ad platform and you are using direct response metrics."

This common exchange is frustrating for both of us because if more online social/media networks really embraced their very wonderful, response-based DNA roots then it would be more productive all around. Instead, newer online publishers/social networks focus on impression-based ad sales to make them sound like offline media. Problem is that online media is nothing like offline media.

Impressions, let's remind ourselves, emerged decades ago out of a need to standardize broadcast media buys. It was impossible to know for sure who was watching a show or listening to the radio unlike print media, which had audited circulation numbers. So complex audience delivery formulas were derived from companies like Nielsen based on actual data supporting actual audience size.

It was an imperfect measure but workable since everyone understood those impressions were based on some correlation between actual households (a.k.a. real people) and audience reach. Turned out, this imperfect system worked in traditional media's favor because they were freer to charge "take it or leave it" CPM rates and less encumbered to prove their ROI worth than was required of response-based advertising.

Flash forward a few decades when online media emerged, there was a need to standardize that too. So the IAB was born to standardize ad formats across online media properties. Back then, "clicks" were king and the core metric was CTR (click-through rate). Google's genius was its insight that marketers valued online advertising perhaps even more than traditional media precisely because of the ability to track the click. That insight resulted in the Adwords platform, which built the Goggle juggernaut.

Which brings us to today. The newer social and niche networks are quick to adopt traditional brand impression delivery metrics abandoning their response-based roots because, mistakenly, they believe they can monetize their audiences better with CPM sales versus performance-based sales.

This thinking is stunningly wrong given the results of this new Adobe study, The State of Online Advertising. It should be a wake-up call to the online ad network world because it starkly lays out how online marketing is failing with consumers. "Attitudes toward online advertising were overwhelmingly negative, with a large percentage of consumers saying they found online ads to be "annoying," "distracting…" If marketers can't get actionable audience delivery information, (e.g. better metrics on real audiences numbers versus targeted impression metrics), then relevancy and results will be hit or miss. Everyone loses.

As a counterweight to this somewhat frustrating situation, new industry and tech-company initiatives are working hard to establish better measured and qualified impressions delivery metrics.

One example is an IAB initiative around "Viewable Impressions" championed by Peter Naylor, EVP digital media sales, NBC Universal and IAB chairman of the board of directors. He directly exhorts publishers to change their game in this Ad Age article: Viewable Impressions Are the Future of Metrics: Are You Ready?

Tech companies are also changing the conversation. Second-generation mobile ad platforms like Adtheorent focus on delivering "intelligent impressions," optimizing their delivery by zeroing in on real people with real preferences making it highly measurable and efficient.

All in all, these initiatives encouragingly point to a welcome return to a balanced set of metrics for online advertising that embraces performance-based online measures in addition to "impressions." This way marketers can set real goals with real benchmarks and can reward well performing networks. Everyone wins.

It's time to put the human equation back into the media equation. After all, "impressions don't buy -- real people do."

Judy Shapiro is chief brand strategist at CloudLinux and has held senior marketing positions at Paltalk, Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
Most Popular
In this article: