Which metric, reach or impressions? Neither

NB:  Impressions as discussed herein, while similar, are not to be confused with advertising impressions.

This week we again broached with a client a topic that never seems to grow old:  how reach metrics aren’t nearly as meaningful as they’re made out to be.  The reality is that marketers like numbers, and quantification seems to lend significance.  Nevertheless, not everything that can be measured, ought to be; nor does that fact that it has been measured, automatically make a metric significant.  Elementary, I know, but we’re all prone to fixating on numbers from time to time, even those that don’t matter in a strategic sense.

This specific discussion revolved around reach vs. impressions metrics, the main question being which was more essential.  In our view, reach is the better number — albeit tallest of the dwarfs — because it represents the sum of all monthly readers, followers, friends, etc an influencer has.  IOW, it’s an accounting of their audience.  Reach serves as a theoretical maximum, in that not all who can be reached will actually read the content (call it “notice”), much less engage with it.  It’s analogous to newspaper/magazine circulation and can be calculated prior to taking any action, such as publication of content.

Impressions follow a similar counting, except they’re networked and therefore can expand exponentially.  Impressions in our world consist of the extended network of influencers – their followers and friends, and their followers, and so on – that have been exposed to a specific piece of content.  So if you publish a tweet, and your follower RT’s it, and then one of her followers RT’s it again, the impressions metric would total all 3 networks into yet another theoretical maximum, as when we calculated reach before.

This measurement radically expands the theoretical maximum, but is also unpredictable by definition, as one cannot determine beforehand what content will be propagated (RT’d, liked, linked to, etc).  One cannot calculate impressions in advance, but rather only after a piece has been published and socialization has taken it course.  Put another way, the uncertainty surrounding “notice” (actually reading a piece) and engagement, both of which we presented above, is compounded – with the uncertainty factor likewise compounded.  And it’s really not until this engagement takes place that an action meaningful to the business has occurred.

Impressions are worth very little and quite rightly ought to be factored out of the core metrics that drive marketing strategy today, as we’ve seen them to be merely a way to put big #’s in front of execs, à la PR.  However, a savvy exec will overlook both reach and impressions, and instead ask how content generation has impacted inbound traffic and lead qualification.  This is because both reach and impressions are awareness metrics, and as such, signify far less to your business than store visits, sales gains or similar core business metrics.

So what’s our bottom line?  Very simple:  because they don’t propel the business forward, we advise against giving undue credence to awareness metrics when formulating an influencer marketing strategy.

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