Marketing Math cartoon by Tom Fishburne

9 June 2024

Go Ahead , Impress Me: The Marketing Myth Of “Impressions”

by Freddy Tran Nager, Founder of Atomic Tango + Not An Impressionist; cartoon by “Marketoonist” Tom Fishburne

My favorite square in this comic by “Marketoonist” Tom Fishburne is the first one, since the misused metric called “impressions” comes up all the time in my classrooms and client meetings.

Too many marketers equate impressions with success, when the truth is, most so-called “impressions” are worthless.

According to digital media marketers, an impression is any appearance on a person’s screen, no matter how brief or peripheral:

  • That tiny text-only ad that appears for just a second in the bottom right corner? Even though you didn’t see it, that counts as an “impression.
  • The social media post that you scrolled by as quickly as possible? That also counts as an impression.
  • And that irrelevant ad that you’ve seen and ignored 100 times? All 100 count as impressions.

Consider also that marketers can simply buy all the impressions they want straight from the media source. When they claim their content generated a million or even a billion impressions, in most cases, they’re simply describing their ability to spend money.

And I won’t even get into ad fraud, where impressions are generated by bots and other scams. Ad fraud expert Dr. Augustine Fou can give you all the dirty details about fake impressions.

By dictionary definition, an “impression” needs to have an effect on the viewer. Think of what “make an impression” means in your life. You genuinely have to impress other people.

Imagine driving down a busy freeway. If this were digital media, every single car in your line of vision would count as an impression, even the ones that speed past you in a flash. How many cars do you even notice, least of all remember? Perhaps the one that’s stylish (creativity) and certainly the one that cuts you off (controversy)  —  especially if it cuts you off repeatedly and ultimately crashes into you (pop-up ads, anyone?).

And remember, this is marketing  —  we’re hoping for positive outcomes. We want consumers to be interested, not annoyed.

A better measure of “impressions” would be interactions: clicks, likes, comments, or shares. At least we know the content was actually seen. Of course, such interactions (euphemistically called “engagement”) are also frequently faked or even negative  —  but that’s a topic for another post.

So next time someone boasts how many impressions they generated, ask them tough questions about viewability and actual positive effects. While you’re at it, grill them on the viewers :  potential customers in the target market, or just millions of random people from around the world?

Once you get into the hard details, you’ll discover that most impressions aren’t very impressive.

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Freddy is the Founder & Creative Strategist of Atomic Tango. He also teaches graduate-level marketing communication courses at the University of Southern California (go Trojans!), shoots pool somewhat adequately, and herds cats. Freddy received his BA from Harvard and his MBA from USC.

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