An Alternative to Impressions?

Last week I discussed the media currency of impressions and clicks and a different way to think about them. Today, these are the two most common ad units bought and sold in the online marketplace. In that discussion, I alluded to an alternative to the use of impressions and clicks as a unit of exchange: audience and session.

This week, I’d like to talk about audience.


In the offline media space, audience is a well-established fundamental of advertising. When one buys print or broadcast, the media planner and buyer are usually looking to reach a specific audience.

“We need to reach upscale adults aged 25 to 54, who drink three or more cups of coffee per day.”

This element of media planning and buying is the same, for the most part, in the online media space. As with other media, we look for a specific vehicle that will do the best job reaching the particular target one is after. So maybe one site has more upscale adults aged 25 to 54 than another site. (No matter how much syndicated research I might have at my disposal, the “three or more cups of coffee per day” qualifier is much harder to get at and is primarily correlative.)

Much like print, a lot of site selection is finding an audience that is assumptive based on content. But, unlike print, I can buy advertising against a rate base, which guarantees a certain potential for reaching that magazine’s audience.

With broadcast, however, I can buy advertising against an actual demographic and receive guarantees for delivery against that demographic. If I buy 100 rating points against adults aged 25 to 54, the broadcast vehicle I buy will guarantee that I get my message in front of that audience. (Radio is a bit different, for reasons that the media buying industry has begrudgingly accepted, but that is a discussion we simply don’t have time to get into right now.)

It may be difficult for most sites to start delivering against demographically specific audiences, save for maybe those that have registered users who volunteer that kind of information. But they should be able to start guaranteeing rate bases like print does. With the kinds of technologies available now for ad serving, they should be able to institute certain controls that can allow for the delivery of an advertiser’s message to a given audience size and sell inventory based on guaranteed rates.

There’s no reason it cannot still be based on a cost per thousand price structure, as it is with print, but there should be more accountability on this level than there is today. Through something as simple as frequency controls and cookies, it wouldn’t take much for sites to offer this kind of inventory structure. The problem is that there is so much more monetized potential in the waste that impression-only purchasing can yield, publishers will be reluctant to let this kind of inventory structure go.

But I would argue that if sites could deliver an actual audience and/or a rate base, more advertisers would be willing to move dollars into the online medium than they do today. And it would help place an online campaign within the context of the rest of an advertiser’s marketing effort.


One of the great things about the Internet and what its role in advertising and marketing has become is its desire to innovate. In fact, it is not only a desire, but an inherent tenet of the business. Being forward thinking and trying new things is tantamount to its distinction. But there are things to gain from our advertising-industry forebears. There are lessons to be learned from decades of marketing business and some well-established best practices.

If the online advertising marketplace wants to continue to evolve, it isn’t only imperative that it does new things that help to fix what is broken, but that it borrows old things that work already. It is kind of like learning to admit that your parents were right about a lot of things that you didn’t want to hear about when you were a teenager.

And it will be crucial to luring more traditional advertisers and marketers to the online advertising space to not only speak the language they understand, but demonstrate real apples-to-apples analogies to the rest of the tools being applied to the overall marketing project. Delivering audiences, rate bases, and the like is something the advertising world understands and has come to expect.

C’mon, publishers. For once, let’s give the market what it wants and not what we want to give it.

Next week, we’ll talk about something that is entirely new to both sides of the media fence: sessions.

Related reading