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The Social Media Impression Crisis

Posted on 4.09.2013

:: By Ana Raynes, Didit ::

The social media industry is on the brink of a crisis because of widespread confusion over the definition of the industry term “impression.” 

Here’s the problem: nearly every social media toolset uses the word “impression” as a metric in reporting the success of failure of a campaign, initiative or in general regarding a specific message and its reach and penetration. But the definition of the term appears to be much looser than its narrow definition in the worlds of online advertising – so loose as to approach meaningless and perhaps even deceptive. The fact is that a social media “impression” is a different animal because it is only a probability, not a fact or event.

What Exactly Is An Impression?

The term “impression” is narrowly defined in the worlds of traditional online advertising. In fact, the IAB even put together a working group in 2003 and issued a global standard for counting ad impressions in November of 2004.  In 2006 the group did the same for Digital Video Ad Measurement by defining a video ad impression. Many would argue that even the current digital advertising definitions for an impression are too lax and that impressions for digital paid media should exclusively count times when a message was within the line of sight of the advertiser. 

But the social media “impressions” reported in the social media toolsets are not defined in this narrow way, nor do they represent true impressions.  At best, a social media “impression” is a potential impression because it is impossible to know whether a given message – sent across thousands of busy Twitter or Facebook streams – is actually perceived by the observer. In the old days, it was thought that in order for that “impression” to actually impress upon the consumer a message it must be seen by the consumer or at least scroll past their field of vision. Social media impressions are not facts or events; only probabilities and potentialities. Effectively, advertisers are buying “chances” for exposure, not the exposure itself, which makes the game more like Lotto than traditional media buying.

What The Tool Sets Say

Those of us who live and breathe social media know that social media message impressions are more akin to those in the world of public relations than the impressions of traditional advertising. In the world of PR, impressions can be inferred by counting the subscribers of a given magazine as a PR hit, regardless of whether the subscriber actually noticed the coverage or not. 

We surveyed 12 different social media toolsets. The majority of them claim to be treating impressions in exactly this fashion, using data from Facebook, Twitter, and Web analytics firms, to construct a model of influence. Two toolsets, TwitterReach and SimplyMeasured, appear to calculate impressions using Twitter as a proxy. “Exposure is the number of overall impressions generated by tweets in this report (the total number of times tweets were delivered to timelines, including repeats).” (TwitterReach). “Total number of times a tweet from your account or a tweet mentioning your account has appeared in someone's Twitter feed during the report period (does not imply that a user viewed his or her twitter during that time).” 

None of the vendors of these toolsets go so far as to say what the value of such an “impression” actually is (this data is either reported to the client without any inference about what its value is or not given a dollar value at all). So it cannot fairly be said that they are overselling the value of social media “impressions.” But when it comes down to defining what a social media impression is, the toolsets’ definitions aren’t very helpful and lead to more questions then they can answer.

What Is a Social Media Impression Worth?

It’s easy to understand why both the agency community and the social media publishers would like clients to be wowed by astronomical “impression” numbers in their reports, but marketers need clarity as to exactly what such a social media “impression” is and what it is worth. If there’s any clarity to be found, it might come from the PR industry, which has come up with some new concepts for valuing media exposure through what it calls the Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE) metric. AVE attempts to calculate what editorial coverage would cost were it paid media. 

It is less clear, however, whether measuring social media influence can be achieved with such a metric. Social media is altogether different from other forms of media and measuring influence – whether through an impression, a page view, like, follow, or tweet – requires a different slide rule from that used in traditional media. We as an industry need to be thinking about developing such a tool, but in the meantime it is crucial that battle the perception that a social media “impression” is even remotely equivalent to a traditional one. If we don’t, we face a crisis, a backlash, and a wave of disappointment from advertisers who believed what they were buying had real value. 

About the Author:

Ana Raynes currently leads the social media efforts at Didit as a social media manager.  Her role includes strategic planning for clients’ social media campaigns, developing blogger relationships and identifying news, trends and best practices within social media.

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