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by Dana DiTomaso

Your Impressions Don’t Impress Me Much

Illustration of an unimpressed emoji face

[Update, December 8 2014: Google has just put out their own stats, showing that 56% of ads aren’t seen. Nothing new to see here! But please keep wasting your money on CPM ads!]

One of the most ubiquitous metrics in the digital marketing word is the “impression”. The idea is simple — if an ad is shown on a webpage or search engine result, it’s an impression. However, this can give advertisers a false sense of exactly how much their ad has made an impact.

A comScore study in 2013 found that 54% of display ads are never seen. Maybe they were displayed on the page, but they were below the fold, or the person left the page before the ad was fully loaded, or a million of other issues.

A gif of Morpheus says What if I told you that you're paying money for absolutely nothing

This feels like the in-joke of the internet, a wink-wink between traditional agencies and publishers — those that sell display ads to unsuspecting clients and the sites that accept ad revenue.

Both of these parties know that display ad metrics aren’t just inaccurate, they’re a heaping pile of bullshit.

Impressions have ended up being the “look how great we are!” measure that agencies that are more focused on trying to obfuscate what’s really going on so that they look good, rather than report on real results. It’s a big number and it looks amazing to say that your ad had 1 million impressions instead of the sad trombone of 10 clicks. This kind of reporting is particularly rife within so-called “traditional” advertising agencies, who are used to reporting on offline campaigns and are still struggling to understand all this internet stuff.

Impressions are also sacrificed to the altar of vague reporting metrics such as “brand awareness”.

We had a real-life example of this when working with another agency for a mutual client. They claimed that an ad had resulted in “brand awareness” due to the large number of impressions the ad received. But in reality, the creative was boring and blended into the site. There wasn’t even a call to action. Just because your ad had 1,000 impressions, it doesn’t mean that:

  1. 1,000 more people know about your company.
  2. 1,000 more people feel good about your company.
  3. 1,000 people looked at your ad at all.

If you need to measure brand awareness, try measuring it on social media or count people visiting your landing page. Did someone talk about your brand on social? Did they go to your site, maybe sign up for your newsletter? That’s brand awareness! Someone glazing over your display ad on a webpage that they viewed for two seconds isn’t brand awareness.

(Facebook is also guilty of this. The “boost” button on page posts is paying per impressions, although they call it reach. Reach is also a poorly understood metric that’s becoming a stand in for impressions on social media. Buyer beware.)

How did we get here? In the beginning of advertising, we paid per impression. Billboards cost a certain amount depending on how many cars drove by. Nielsen ratings determined how much advertisers should pay for TV shows — sweeps weeks were how television shows inflated their numbers so they could charge more. We didn’t have a better way to measure things.

Then, the internet happened. Instead of thinking “hey, we can measure all kinds of things now!”, pageviews became the default metric of success because it was comfortable and nobody in advertising had to shift too much. You could say “this site gets 10,000 pageviews a day”, put down your client’s money and then tell them that they got 10,000 ad views. Just like buying a radio ad, right?

Pageviews should never have been the default measure of advertising. It’s resulted in awful clickbait headlines (You won’t believe what happens next!) and multipage slideshows (I’m looking at you, Huffington Post). But pageviews are a metric that could be easily measured and sold to people who understood the old school of advertising.

What they didn’t understand (or willfully ignored) was banner blindness. Spend 5 minutes on the internet, and you’ll start to zone out the ads. Some pages make it hard by shouting at you, showing popups, and pushing giant page takeovers, but loud isn’t the new good. You can’t make someone want to pay attention to your creative that was recycled from a billboard.

The internet is not just a cheaper billboard. If your ad isn’t compelling, if it doesn’t speak to me, then you might as well save your money and take yourself out for a nice dinner instead.

The internet, while still a baby, is learning really fast. We can target based on behaviour, what you’re searching for, your age, your Facebook interests, whether or not you already visited our site — a million different ways to show exactly the ad that you’ll be interested in at the moment you see it. But instead, most advertisers submit webpage visitors to the blunt force trauma of multiple ad impressions, hoping for a nice big number they can show on their PowerPoint presentation the next time they’re at a client meeting.

People on the internet aren’t lemmings, just waiting around to be shown something flashy so they can jump off a cliff after it. We all see ads every single day, and we’re smart enough to decide what’s interesting and what’s just more crap to ignore. Recycled creative and scattershot advertising isn’t just lazy, it’s disrespectful to you and to your client. Reporting on impressions reinforces the idea that if you show an ad enough times, we’ll just have to give in to the message. And we all know that isn’t true.


Brads profile picture Brad says:

Well said. I’m currently in the process of explaining to the C-suites why “Impressions” is a really really poor KPI for our PPC campaigns. Getting blank stares in response. This should help 🙂

Dana DiTomasos profile picture Dana DiTomaso says:

Good luck and I hope it helps.

Greg Giffords profile picture Greg Gifford says:

(standing ovation)

Dana DiTomasos profile picture Dana DiTomaso says:

Thanks Greg!

Chris Boulangers profile picture Chris Boulanger says:

Thanks for this. Impressions and pageviews are both flawed metrics, but they’ve got such deep adoption that it’s hard to get people off them.

Dana DiTomasos profile picture Dana DiTomaso says:

Thanks Chris! And agreed – there’s better ways but it requires getting people to leave their comfort zone.

Paiges profile picture Paige says:

Great article! I am getting enraged myself seeing people and agencies brag about impressions and brand awareness. Show me CTR and conversions please.

Dana DiTomasos profile picture Dana DiTomaso says:

Thanks Paige!

Luiss profile picture Luis says:

Excellent point, a good part of the internet marketing is trapped in this ‘impressions bubble’, and social media is not an exception. I wonder for how long is this fiction going to last…

Dana DiTomasos profile picture Dana DiTomaso says:

Thanks Luis! Let’s hope it isn’t too long.

Randy Brososkys profile picture Randy Brososky says:

Brilliance. Pure brilliance.

Dana DiTomasos profile picture Dana DiTomaso says:

Thanks Randy!

Jills profile picture Jill says:

Thank you. I’ve always included impression or reach info on my reports as a sidenote, if at all. To me that’s not a deliverable, why would I even include it?

Dana DiTomasos profile picture Dana DiTomaso says:

Exactly. We include it to show context but that’s all.

Seans profile picture Sean says:

Dana, Yeah I remember when magazine reps would pitch their mags using impracticable “reach” numbers based on premises like “since an average of 12 people will read each copy of this publication cover-to-cover . . . ” LOL. As if! And then after a lacklustre campaign that they helped design, they would still try to say “eight telephone enquiries is a GREAT result, since on average 140 people will buy the product/service ‘later’ for every 1 that enquires today.”

At least on Facebook the definitions of reach have changed heaps over the past 2-3 years. We used to get ten PURCHASES and fifty clicks on 3000 impressions, and now we are lucky to get 2 purchases and ten clicks on 1500 (creatively defined) impressions. Heck we used to get more action on POSTS than we now get on PAID ads.

An impression is definitely no longer an impression!

Christa Watsons profile picture Christa Watson says:

I came for Admiral Akbar, I stayed for the content. Seriously though, as a new marketer/student I love reading pieces like this that keep me in the game. I love finding real results, and like minded marketers. Bravo!

Dana DiTomasos profile picture Dana DiTomaso says:

Thanks Christa!

Tony Greenes profile picture Tony Greene says:

Your post doesn’t give an alternative to the marketer as to what metric to use for exhibiting a successful campaign. Any ideas as to what can be used to signify a good return on investment dollar?

Dana DiTomasos profile picture Dana DiTomaso says:

Thanks for the feedback, Tony! I don’t have a hard and fast answer and it should vary depending on the client. What’s the client’s goal? How can you measure it and how does that match up with a digital metric? For example, if the client wants more walk-in traffic to the business, start doing people counts and see if it relates in any way to website visits.

Robs profile picture Rob says:

The challenge that online display has is that 70% of the ad inventory out there is junk – either crappy sites or crappy placement. But engaging creative on high quality websites, combined with measurement beyond impressions and clicks (like view-throughs and conversions for example) definitely have a place within the media mix.
In terms of banner ads, an impression is really a buying metric, not a performance metric anyway. I hope we are all well beyond “Your campaign performed great because all your impressions delivered.”

Dana DiTomasos profile picture Dana DiTomaso says:

Thanks for commenting, Rob. Sure, engaging creative can work. But pricing based on impressions just perpetuates the problem – if half of your impressions are bogus, how can I trust that you can deliver on what I’m buying?

Jeffs profile picture Jeff says:

Specify placement. Homepage only, top right. Targeting users by behavior, demographics, keywords. There are plenty of ways to make sure you get the most of each impression. I personally think creative, placement and a strong call to action are keys to successful banner ads.

Dana DiTomasos profile picture Dana DiTomaso says:

There absolutely are ways to make sure that your display ads are actually viewed. But many people don’t pay attention to that or think that all impressions are created equal. The goal here is to dispel that myth.

Robs profile picture Rob says:

Absolutely, but can the same not be said for clicks and paid search? I guess that is why how a company is buying and who they are buying from is so important. The online marketplace is the same as any other marketplace in terms of getting what you pay for.

Dana DiTomasos profile picture Dana DiTomaso says:

Of course! What I’m hoping to get across here is that volume isn’t the goal, and people need to be more skeptical of what they’re being told when it comes to display advertising.

Victors profile picture Victor says:

Google now has a program called Action View that’s taking internet branding to the next level. They introduced a metric that measures actual viewability for a display ad. The IAB just rolled out with a standard for what counts as a viewable impression: “50% of pixels must be in the viewable portion of an internet browser for a minimum of one continuous second to qualify as a viewable display impression for a standard display ad”. There are several companies that have the technology to measure this, Google being just one of them.

I wouldn’t swear too much by clicks either. There are such things as natural born clickers and studies that show little connection between clicks and offline purchases. There is a place for both direct response and branding initiatives and companies should practice both.

james mcdowells profile picture james mcdowell says:

Hi Dana,

Interesting angle in your article, I can see how you came to that conclusion from your perspective but wanted to add some of my own experience and hope you won’t mind a voice coming from the opposing side of the conversation?…

I work for a large media group and head up our adserver/media measurement sales team. Our adserver is used by some of the largest brands in the world and we have gained a lot of experience in the “post impression” measurement space.

Some of the most interesting work we do is measuring for incremental uplift as a result of impressions against banner ad’s and I can say that we are able to prove that there is a genuine uplift from a well delivered display campaign, even when the user doesn’t actually click the creative. This is done using A/B test and control and ensures that any uplift generated is not coincidental as we replace the banner ad in our control group with an unrelated creative. It is a little more advanced than I am making it sound, but without divulging the specific client names, these results are being used successfully by some of the largest advertisers in the world to prove that there is value to be gained from impressions rather than just clicks and site visits.

Of course I accept as you mention, a slapdash and poorly executed creative will often do very little for a brand, but that still leaves potential for the user to have absorbed the brand name and/or call to action. As I say, we put our data where our mouth is so I can say this with confidence on our side.

Happy to have a chat if this prompts any discussion, as would be interesting to hear more on this from your experiences.

Hope you won’t mind me commenting, thanks for sharing a thought provoking piece like this.

Kind regards

James McDowell

Dana DiTomasos profile picture Dana DiTomaso says:

Thanks James for your comment.

Can you provide more details on how you prove success if the user doesn’t click the creative?

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