What Do We Want an Impression to Mean?

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Cover image for  article: What Do We Want an Impression to Mean?

The idea of an ad impression was created about a hundred years ago and from the beginning, it meant different things in different media. But in all cases, it always related to counting up the number of opportunities a media buy gave the advertiser to pitch a consumer. This allowed a way of weighing one media buy against another: based on the Cost Per Thousand (CPM) impressions charged by one buy versus another.

In print media such as magazines and newspapers, in the very beginning it was based on audited counts of the number of copies put into circulation via subscriptions and single-copy purchases typically made from newsstands. Later on, it came to be based on total audience, not the number of copies, but the number of human beings who looked at the issue. Of course, not every person who looked at the issue opened to the spread where a given advertiser’s ad was located.

In radio and television, in the infancy of each, an impression was based on the number of households tuned to the program. Later, impressions were counted based on the number of people tuned to the program.

More recently in TV, impressions were based on the number of people who subjectively classify themselves as watching the program, and most recently it is the number of people who classify themselves as watching the program during the time the average ad in the show played and going forward it is also the number of people who subjectively classify themselves as viewing during the time a specific ad played.

This subjective viewing idea is operationalized by pushbutton peoplemeters, used around the world as the buying/selling currency measurements, but not every country does it that way, even the ones that use pushbutton peoplemeters. In Europe for example most of the countries tell panelists to push their button if they are in a room in which a TV set is on. That is of course a larger number than those who consider themselves to be viewing.

In digital, impressions are generally based on device statistics rather than human being statistics, and an impression means that the ad was delivered according to an automatic counter in the delivery path. A viewable impression means that at least 50% of the pixels in the ad actually appeared on the screen for at least a second, or two seconds if it’s a video ad. An ad can be delivered to a frame that is covered by another frame, and that’s one way that an impression may not be a viewable impression.

Interestingly, the future of ad impressions was not brewed in television or in digital, but in radio.

In the early 1960s, ARB (later known as Arbitron, now a part of Nielsen) introduced a multimedia diary and used it to go into competition with the leading measurer of local radio audiences, called Pulse, who used recall surveys. The multimedia diary gave radio smaller audience numbers than Pulse, which led ARB to introduce a radio-only diary, which showed larger audience sizes for radio. Birch and others jumped into the fray with their own measurement solutions. This led the industry to collaborate in the creation of the All Radio Measurement Study (“ARMS”), a validation study to test about a dozen methods against a truth standard (coincidentals in homes and meters in cars).

One interesting feature of the study was that the coincidental reported audience at two different levels: people who said they were subjectively listening, and other people who did not self-classify that way, but who said they could hear the radio. The ARB radio diary came the closest to the listening + hearing truth standard and became the sole currency in the local radio industry.

Many years later when the PPM was developed (amusing tale), it was calibrated to provide audience data at the hearing level, not just the listening level. Arbitron used it to replace its diaries for measuring radio, and Nielsen now also uses it to measure television both in and out of the home, as one input along with pushbutton people meters, streaming meters, watermarks, set-top box data, smart TV data, and server data. Nielsen’s newest PPM is wearable as a wristwatch or jewelry and it will be gradually replacing its pushbutton peoplemeters.

In a few years, Nielsen and the MRC will be asking the industry to make a decision as to which way to define an impression: based on a person saying they were watching or listening or, based on that person merely being located in the room with a TV, radio, or digital advertising medium that is turned on and offering images and/or sounds.

I suspect at that time we may opt for the non-subjective approach, as many of the European countries have. It produces higher audience numbers, which sellers like, and it is scientifically defensible based on strong evidence from academia and neuroresearch companies among others, which proves that ads can influence people even below the level of conscious awareness. So even if they were not consciously watching or listening, they could be affected by an ad.

This will be your choice as an industry. It will help to start thinking about it now, because the perspective is also helpful in understanding measurements of attention, ad recall, persuasion, etc.

The proliferation of these interim measures of advertising effectiveness, which the Advertising Research Foundation has structured in the famous ARF Model, provides another reason to define impressions as all-inclusively as possible, since other measurements will also be available with which to parse the most inclusive measure of impressions into degrees of intensity.

Finally, coming back full circle to where we started, since impressions are meant to measure the value brought by a media vehicle to the advertiser, it can be argued that anything less than the most inclusive measure would be unfair to that media vehicle; its job is to create as many opportunities as possible, and so count all of those opportunities, not just the cases where the advertiser’s ad drew attention to the ad. That would be blaming the media for what was the advertiser’s responsibility.

Posted at MediaVillage through the Thought Leadership self-publishing platform.

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