An Impression is Anything But…*

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What is an “impression”? If you’re speaking English, an impression is an indelible mark left on someone. It’s pressed into something, leaving behind a visible trace or effect. An impression is not miss-able or forget-able – when something leaves an impression, it means it was remarkable, memorable, compelling.

But when people are speaking media, an impression is anything but. A media impression is rarely seen or noticed or remembered. It is overwhelmingly likely to be ignored, or perhaps not even there in the first place. When you consider that 1) most ad impressions are avoided and ignored; 2) display ad/banner impressions are clicked by 1 in 10,000 people; and 3) there are estimates that up to 75% of all digital “impressions” are fraudulent or unviewable, you wonder how the hell this term became the currency for media planning and buying in the first place.

Why has this happened? I think there are a few reasons:

  • The media world is resistant to change. Impressions have been the buying scale for a long time, so change is difficult. And changing would require re-setting all pricing and value benchmarks. And demand new thinking and ideas about the role of media.
  • Using the mis-named “impressions” as currency allows for the illusion of scale. This helps make media folks and clients feel comfortable they are “reaching” lots of people – despite the fact that most people won’t be very “impressed”.
  • Using this definition of impressions as the currency allows CPMs to continue to seem low and affordable. Because inventory is loaded with cheap stuff, overall pricing seems cheap. But it’s like filling your Sumatran coffee order with wood shavings to keep prices low.

But why does no one call bullsh*t? Why do agencies and clients buy millions of impressions when we know most of them won’t make one? Why do they purchase huge quantities of something they know is filled up with crap? Why do they not seem to be bothered by the reportedly huge percentage of fraudulent and non-viewable inventory?

And, importantly, why do most people balk at higher prices for higher quality? For paying a higher CPM for inventory that delivers higher engagement, actions and true “impressions”? Why can’t people start seeing media just as they see their micro-brews, their mixed greens, their grass-fed beef – i.e., that non-watered down quality does leave an impression. And is worth the premium.

I’m dying for someone to illuminate me. And for someone to help me come up with the right new media label for this new kind of approach. Where true engagement is pursued. Where actual, relevant content is delivered to real people. And real impressions are created. I’m thinking maybe “True Impressions”. What do you think?

* Originally published in MediaPost’s Marketing Daily 4/9/15

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