Impressions, and other metrics your organization should ditch

Too many earned media measurements are holdovers from the print-centric era.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

It’s the million-dollar question: How do you demonstrate the effectiveness of your communications strategy? For years, PR professionals relied on measurement metrics such as impressions or advertising value equivalency to determine whether a campaign or comms push was effective.

Relying on impressions as a measurement tool is a holdover from the days of print. Eddie Kim, founder of publisher data marketplace Memo, explains that “impressions say ‘10 million is the monthly audience of this publication,’ so the potential audience of this article was 10 million people.” 

The print-first era lacked tools to measure how many people actually read a specific article in a newspaper or magazine, so circulation figures served as a proxy. “[The equivalent metric today] is based on a form of measurement meant for print in the last century,” he says. “In fact, paid outdoor billboards or subway ads are more accurately measured today than earned digital articles.”

Impressions can tell you how many eyeballs have seen a given video or story but fail to convey whether a brand sold more product or successfully influenced a target audience on a particular issue. They also don’t say whether an activation reached a targeted audience or changed their minds. And when a platform such as Facebook counts three seconds as a view, impressions as a measurement tool can be even more meaningless.

Another problem with impressions: They fail to represent actual audience awareness, leading Proof Analytics founder Mark Stouse to call them both “not credible” and “very often fraudulent.” 

“To use impressions to represent actual awareness, with or without the so-called ‘PR multiple,’ is a fraudulent representation,” he contends.

Another common criticism of impressions is succinctly summarized by James Davis, president of Touchdown Strategies, as “if you go viral for the wrong reason, then that’s not a good thing.”

However, not all communications executives have strong feelings about impressions. Michael Rinaman, SVP of TRUE Global Intelligence at FleishmanHillard, contends that the problem is that impressions “are not always a direct measure of media performance and almost always need further definition to qualify.” 

While proxies for measurement like impressions may fall short, Rinaman notes that emerging technologies and tools bolster impressions as a metric, allowing PR professionals to “measure results more holistically and accurately.”

Experts are also dismissive of advertising value equivalency because it treats cost and value equally. “AVE represents the cost of an advertisement of the same size, prominence or duration,” Stouse explains. “Hopefully the business value would be much greater than the cost.” 

Kim calls it “one of the greatest tricks the paid media world pulled over on the earned media world.” 

However, he doesn’t think that using paid media metrics to place a value on earned media is the problem, it’s just the way it’s currently done. The problem is that the few seconds that a consumer’s eyes land on a display ad is valued the same way as significantly more time engaged with an article. 

“One is a small box in the corner that no one looks at and goes out of view. The other is a headline, along with at least one supporting image and hundreds of words of text, that a reader has organically chosen to spend time on for an average of one minute and 30 seconds,” Kim says, noting that the process has “completely devalued earned media in comparison.”

While most experts agree that earned media measurement needs to move from the age of the physical newsstand to the digital edition, there’s less consensus on what should replace outdated earned metrics. 

Assessing the effectiveness of PR and communications requires two pieces working in tandem: measurement and analytics. Stouse defines measurement as data collection, including story volume, tonality, reach, share of voice and impressions. Analytics examines cause and effect, gauging the relationship “between story volume and audience awareness and then audience awareness and number of sales inquiries,” he adds. 

However, the tools on the market in these two buckets make accurately measuring effectiveness difficult, if not impossible, according to PR professionals. For instance, the number of people reached is irrelevant if they’re not the right people, or a statistically significant number of people, or if the campaign fails to get the intended audience to act on what they’ve read or consumed. 

There’s also a difference between stated preference and demonstrated preference, experts point out. “You could say you want something but don’t actually purchase it. Therefore, PR pros need to dive a little deeper and understand more of the ‘why’ behind the consumer purchase in the first place,” explains Davis.

Changing privacy laws are also making measurement more difficult. Some platforms rely on ad-tracking technology to demonstrate consumer conversion, showing that an individual read an article about an organization or product and then visited an associated website. 

“These approaches are already compromised due to E.U. and California regulations and the decisions of companies like Google to suppress third-party cookies and other tracking technologies,” Stouse says.

So what can be done? While there is consensus that impressions and AVE are not good earned media metrics, some contend they’re a much better option than having no measurements at all. That’s why Mission North co-CEO Bill Bourdon is calling for measurement to evolve, adding that some PR teams are recognizing that they need to take a “more audience-centric approach to their campaigns.” This would mean emphasizing “high-quality audience insights over superficial metrics like web traffic, impressions and ad value equivalency,” he says. 

Stouse argues that PR firms should be more willing to devote more budget to understanding an audience. Their reluctance means comms teams “usually know nothing about the levels of awareness, confidence and trust that their audience actually have,” he says. Stouse calls for using political campaigns as a model instead, running frequent polls or surveys to understand an audience, what matters to them and what they do and don’t want.

Bourdon has hope for earned media metrics, as long as they’re combined with “more granular insights about how and if the right people are actually engaging.” These insights could include looking not just at web traffic, but also the bounce rate, or not just volume of social media impressions, but also whether the most relevant influencers shared or commented. Focusing on these additional factors allows for a more comprehensive approach, which reflects the increasingly “multifaceted and multidimensional” face of communications. 

Rinaman, meanwhile, contends that the metrics that fail to measure comms effectiveness are “those that are not tied to business goals.” In other words, if a PR professional wants to help a client improve customer loyalty, looking at general media performance is inadequate. Similarly, looking at click-through rates is not the right measurement tool if you’re hoping to engage a community to educate. Each campaign instead needs to use “the metrics that relate back to business performance to most accurately display success,” he says. 

Ultimately, most experts say there’s no silver bullet for measuring earned media effectiveness. “There is no magical basket of metrics that can demonstrate communications effectiveness,” Stouse says.

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