September 29, 2022

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Practical Impressions

Practical Impressions

The pros and cons of using this established PR metric

I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with impressions, and I don’t think I’m the only PR person who has struggled with the value of this particular metric. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either a silly and annoying attempt to quantify the unquantifiable, or it is an incredibly useful number that should be a part of any PR measurement process. Impressions probably have a value somewhere in between those two extremes.

First, let’s take a look at what impressions are, and then we’ll take a closer look at when they are useful—and when they are not.

What is an “impression”?

An impression can be defined as when a member of the public has had the chance to interact with the item in question. So, a media impression is how many people have the potential to see a news article, or hear a radio spot, or view a broadcast news item. A social media impression is when an individual has the opportunity to view a post, tweet, etc. In other words, it’s equal to the size of the potential audience that could be reached.

Is there any value in calculating this number?

The value of an impression is somewhat self-evident: when an item mentioning a client or issue is included in a media story, there is at very least the chance for awareness and quite possibly even a deeper understanding if the individual takes the time to read a whole news story. It’s the size of the potential audience that holds some value—the common feeling that a mention in the New York Times has the opportunity to reach more people than a mention in a small-town paper.

What are the problems with using them?

The problems with using impressions as a metric are just as evident as their potential value. There’s no way to definitively track how many people actually read a print news article, nor is there a guarantee that even if someone had the radio or TV on that they were actually paying attention when the piece mentioning a client or product aired. While it is now possible for a news organization to track how many readers clicked on a piece or viewed a video, those data are not always made available publicly. Social media impressions are even trickier—it’s a bit of a stretch to assume that every one of an account’s followers saw a tweet in real-time—if they saw it at all. In short, impressions are a guess on the high end of how many people had the chance to see or hear something, which should always be kept in mind when providing impression numbers as a metric.

How are impressions calculated?

Most PR pros who track impressions use circulation numbers or audience numbers on a 1:1 basis. So, if a newspaper has 400,000 subscribers, the number of impressions is 400,000. Some argue that calculating impressions this way leaves out the number of possible pass-alongs. For example, nearly every doctor’s office, dentist, and hair salon appears to be required to have at least one issue of People Magazine in the waiting area pile, so some enterprising executive at some point came up with the concept of using “multipliers,” wherein the number of subscribers is then multiplied by some X, to accommodate this secondary channel of potential impressions.

Although I understand the logic behind multipliers, they should not be used. Impressions already almost certainly artificially inflate the number of people who are exposed to a piece, and using multipliers just makes that problem worse. It’s nice to see a big number as an impressions score, and all a multiplier does is make that number bigger, not more useful—in fact, it’s probably less accurate. It’s more important to have real, useful numbers when tracking a program’s success.

If impressions are just estimates, should they be used at all?

In my opinion, yes, impressions have a place in PR metrics. Unfortunately, many PR pros stop with this number, and impressions are the only metric they use—because, frankly, they are fairly easy to generate as you can see from above. So what value do impressions have?

  • From a high-level perspective, they can show how stories or pitches are resonating in different media outlets. If one phase of a client’s campaign was covered in major media outlets but another phase barely broke through local channels, those differences can be studied and learnings used for future campaigns.
  • Impressions can be considered part of an introduction to your target audience. They are a starting point, not an end point. They show you the widest possible value for an audience, but your real target—the ones for whom your message will resonate best—is likely much smaller.
  • In a crisis, impressions can help you quickly determine the scope and direction of a crisis. Particularly when used in conjunction with tone, impressions are an effective way of seeing the rise, peak, and tailing off of a crisis, which is helpful when you’re crunched for time and not yet able to do detailed analysis. Looking at daily impression numbers over the course of a week or two can give you a quick snapshot as to whether major publications are still covering the crisis, or if coverage is slowing down.

The most important takeaway is that impressions should not be the only measure by which you analyze and assess coverage. They are one metric of many that should be part of a PR pro’s toolkit. The fact that they are a fairly easy number to get to means that incorporating impressions into an overall plan should be an easy lift. The harder to calculate metrics that take more work will be the more valuable ones in providing information that will show how effective your PR efforts are in the long run.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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