Not all impressions are created equal.

When it comes to measuring marketing campaign success, the most valued KPI is a big, possibly meaningless number — and that’s a problem.

I’ve heard dozens of times from many of the companies I work with that they value real engagement from their users. But at the end of the day, when it comes to reporting on the status of what a brand/social media campaign achieved, companies are looking for one, big, mostly-meaningless number:


There is an important metric that measures successful vs unsuccessful impressions: Return on Investment, or ROI. A lot of digital ad campaigns are evaluated by ROI — how much product was sold as a direct result of an ad. But many times, brands create campaigns that can’t be attributed to direct sales like social media campaigns — and for this, ROI becomes a topic of inconclusive opinions. (Examples here, here, and here)

So many companies weigh success in terms of broad impressions and their budgets become allocated to cost-per-impression, or CPI. Let me rant a little on how ridiculous I find broad impressions.

On Twitter, you can count one impression for every single user that may or may not have seen a post go out from a handle because they follow them. So if I post from @handleXYZ to my 1.2 million followers at 1:00am and only five people happen to actually browse by it in their feed — even if they didn’t read it — I still get to count 1.2 million impressions.

This is incredibly misleading for companies.

Because at the end of the day, it’s a large number that boasts a potential of nothing. No measurable change, no measurable value, and no real or lasting impression on the customer at all.

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away, this kind of measurement had some value because it was the best anyone could do.

Back in the 1940–1970s heyday of the newspaper and magazine industry, advertisers used circulation numbers to get an idea of how their ad potentially penetrated the market. They didn’t have the luxury of attaching a digital tracking cookie to an ad in the paper, which followed the reader to the grocery store, and reported to the agency that a purchase was made because of the ad. All they had for measuring success was the number people who get that particular newspaper or magazine. Regardless of whether or not someone read any particular ad on any particular page, they were were counted as part of that circulation number — sound familiar?

The impression just updates to a digital number of the by-gone era of Don Draper lolly-gagging which says, “the more money we can put into circulation, the more the product will eventually sell” (which is probably true but not very measurable).

In today’s vernacular, that same sentiment might sound like, “the higher we can pump our impressions, the more effective our campaign was.” And here in lies the problem:

Marketing and ad agencies know how to pump this number.

If a marketing agency can get their cost-per impression down below $0.20, then hey, stop the presses, we’ve got a winner!

Because this is the deliverable companies are asking for, it becomes less about real engagement and changing habits or behaviors in the audience, but about marking agencies posting their content strategically, so it doesn’t even have to be seen to count as a victory.

I love this article by Matt Wesson that talks about the all-famous Oreo’s “Twitterjacking” strategies that garner a ton of buzz by latching onto a cultural event, posting cleaver photos on Twitter, and tying their brand to the event. Wesson says,

When it comes to creating socially sharable content that is packed with brand personality, nobody is doing it better than Oreo. Each of their marketing campaigns is fresh and takes a unique perspective that fans can enjoy.
Where Oreo falls woefully short however, is understanding the impact of all of this social content.
With little to no idea how their content is affecting the metrics that matter most to the company, Oreo’s content team is unable to prove any real value from their efforts.

The problem once again is the struggle to measure the success/validity of their endeavors.

Where’s the beef?

There are a lot of great ways to measure meaningful levels of engagement. User submissions, time spent on the page, hell, the way Medium measures their engagement is by TTR or Total Time Reading, meaning, they measure how long someone is reading by the speed and rate to which they scroll on a page — that’s so raven. Medium straight up refuses to give any kind of bloated, may-or-may-not-have-seen-let-alone-engaged-in, number as a success metric.

Ev Williams, Medium CEO talks about his choice to aim for what is actually meaningful to their audience — versus numbers based on statistical maybes — and how much value that contributes to a brand,

We pay more attention to time spent reading than number of visitors at Medium because, in a world of infinite content — where there are a million shiny attention-grabbing objects a touch away and notifications coming in constantly — it’s meaningful when someone is actually spending time. After all, for a currency to be valuable, it has to be scarce. And while the amount of attention people are willing to give to media and the Internet in general has skyrocketed — largely due to having a screen and connection with them everywhere — it eventually is finite.

The problem we are starting to face is not our ability to measure real engagement, it’s convincing large companies that the IMPRESSION count they worship is not helping their brand as much as they think.

Now if it’s not broad impressions we want, what is it?
Let’s clarify something:

Not all impressions are created equally.

Think about food: there are empty calories (solid fats and sugars that add little to no nutrients to your body), and nutrient-dense calories (all the vitamins and minerals the body needs).

Likewise there are empty impressions (numbers that mean little to no engagement or even visibility with an audience), and nutrient-dense impressions (real levels of engagement that increase a companies trust, relationship, and space in the mind of their audience).

As of now, a lot of companies are slopping it all into one large McDouble, where there’s some good stuff like shares, comments, submissions, and a whole lot of bloated crap.

So what would happen if the metric shifted from empty impression strategies to measuring nutrient-dense impressions as the main objective of a campaign.

We work with Intel Security on their consumer security education campaigns. Their goal isn’t product sales, but to simply help people be safer online (which normally isn’t thrilling content for the average consumer).

So how would you measure success in a trusted advisor roll? Mentioning security to a wide gamut of people, or helping a smaller group of users make tangible changes to become safer online?

I think brands have an amazing opportunity to have deeper interactions with people — to see how they are engaging with their content, and more importantly, how they are changing their behaviors.

Shane Snow from Contently talks about hitting over 3 minutes on a site as being a good marker for success for true consumer engagement in his 2015 State of Marketing report.

Data shows that engaging with content longer makes people more likely to come back to a brand later. See that 3-minute engaged time mark? That’s a magical point to hit because it corresponds with a 50 percent-plus probability that the reader will return to your site within the next week.

During one of our latest Intel Security campaigns, we made it our goal to have users walk away with a better understanding of which links are safe to click, and which may be malicious. So we measured our nutrient-dense impressions by the average time a user spent on our page (which was 3 minutes 43 seconds during the campaign).

Sure, the campaign didn’t really give many reasons for users to keep coming back to the page or tweet on an ongoing basis (things that can really drive impressions) but they did walk away feeling empowered thanks to Intel Security.

The big number still matters to higher-ups and there’s a balance between highlighting nutrient-dense impressions and delivering on a number that can satisfy their view of a job well done — we often need to build for both.

The reality of the organizations that clients are working in is not as ideal as it could be. There is a lot of stress and pressure to deliver big numbers, even though they know there’s a better way.


This is the language I think we should use to help companies (and ourselves) explore and focus on ways of getting/measuring real impact — meaning more user-participating content, time spend with a brand, more trust.

Maybe there will always be companies who love cheap chocolate by the pound and don’t mind unanswered success metrics, but hopefully we can get more companies to see a higher value in time spent on pages versus total campaign impressions.

Let’s gain a common language for which to measure those engagements — maybe I’m biased, but I’m going to keep talking nutrient-dense.

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