What are impressions and reach actually measuring?
To understand the effectiveness of your social media marketing efforts, an organization must measure its impact in terms of numbers. The metrics of “impressions” and “reach” are commonly used. But, what do these terms really mean? This article will bring clarity to help you understand what is actually being measured.
Same Words for Different Metrics
Here’s the problem. The words “impressions” and “reach” do not have a universally accepted definition across the board. One social network will define impression differently than another. Different definitions are used from one social media monitoring tool to another brand’s. One company has rightly noted: “Reach is a complex metric with many definitions across vendors and industries.”
As much as executives and managers need metrics to make decisions about budget and strategy, when terms like “reach” and “impressions” are used with fuzzy definitions, that leads to either confusion or misperceptions.
Reach counts people, Impressions counts views
SproutSocial gives these simple and clear definitions: “Reach is the total number of people who see your content. Impressions are the number of times your content is displayed, no matter if it was clicked or not.” AdWeek also uses these definitions. One digital marketer cautions that, “over the last 20 years I have seen the meaning of an ‘impression’ change a lot.”
And then there are some that define reach differently. For example, SimplyMeasured defines reach as: “sum of all users mentioning your brand handle + the sum of their followers.” And they go on to explain that “reach accounts for the people who may have seen your content.” [bold and italics added] Notice the word “may” in this explanation.
Some use “reach” to count the number of people who did see the content. Some use “reach” to count the number of people who may or might have seen the content. How can one word have two very different meanings? Here’s one way to clear up the confusion.
Actual Reach or Potential Reach
Two adjectives make definitions clearer: “actual” and “potential.”
Actual reach counts the number of users that did see the content.
Potential reach counts the total number of users that could have seen a piece of content based on social connections. This could be better understood as the possible audience size or “maximum unique potential audience.”
Tweetreach even offers something called “true reach” on its dashboard report, by presenting the numbers for both the potential reach and the actual reach for a piece of content.
Key: When you see the word “reach” being used, you have to discern whether the use of the word is referring to actual reach or potential reach. When you notice a reach number that feels disproportionately large, there’s a good possibility it’s a potential reach.
Actual Impressions or Potential Impressions
Similarly for the term impressions, there are some that use the term for actual impressions, while others use the default unmodified term for potential impressions.
Actual impressions is a measurement how many times a piece of content was displayed on users’ screens. For example, if you saw this blog post but didn’t have time to read it, you could bookmark it and come back tomorrow. When you refresh your browser the next day, or go from your mobile to your desktop, that would count as 2 impressions.
Potential impressions is a measurement of how many times a piece of content might be displayed. SimplyMeasured defines it as: “The total number of times a tweet from your account or mentioning your account could appear in users’ Twitter feeds during the report period.” [bold and italics added]
SimplyMeasured goes on to explain that they’ve found three different ways to calculate the number of potential impressions. Different analytics services can use one of these different methods or come up with another approach. As much as digital content can be more measurable because of its digital footprint, there is so much data being recorded that analytics have to make some assumptions to make the data useful given the constraints of limited resources.
These Metrics are just a Starting Point
Understanding how someone uses the unmodified terms "impressions" or "reach" in a report or presentation is just a starting point. There are a number of other numbers (pun intended) that will need to be incorporated to make these numbers meaningful towards making good informed decisions. True numbers are much more helpful than inflated numbers or ungrounded estimates.
We started with these two terms because we need to know who we're talking about and what they're seeing. Other metrics like "engagement" and "conversions" can be more important to understand impact in terms of goals or sales. In future blog post, we'll unpack more of the most essential terms in social media marketing.
Did this article raise a question or prompt a thought for you? Please add a comment and we'll continue the conversation.