Jam Sessions

You know the impression, that wispy, intangible unit of our trade? The impression is the unit of the ad world that long had meaning in traditional media before becoming the foundation of digital media.

The impression was assumed to be the best currency for our trade because it has qualities that make it appear to be the purest online advertising unit.

Online impressions have offline counterparts. Impressions are what most of advertising is reduced to in traditional media. They allow a breakdown of ad activity’s communicative impact to the lowest common denominator. They also allow comparison of different media.

With the impression as online media’s currency, our industry can distinguish itself from other media by linking compensation (or cost of goods) directly to ad exposure rather than to vehicle exposure. When I buy broadcast, I am buying the opportunity to reach a certain number of people with my message. The number is statistically determined from an aggregation of data from imprecise sources. The data is not specific enough to indicate whether my advertising message will be viewed — only whether the vehicle that carries it will be. I have a sense of how many people watch a TV show, but not how many will see my commercial.

A TV show is a vehicle. A commercial is an ad. It’s vehicle exposure versus ad exposure. Advertisers have always wanted to know ad exposure, so positioning online media inventory as a means to that end made it attractive.

Besides, no one knew what else to do with online media. No one was sure how to measure activity on the Web or what to measure it with. Techno-geeks and propeller heads were hardly the ones you wanted working on marketing units and definitions, but no one in advertising or marketing could take on the task. Most could hardly use a fax machine — thinking about complex technology seemed too daunting. Once the idea of impressions came up, it was easy to link concept to the reality of page views and leave it at that.

Still, no one is satisfied with the impression as the currency for online ad inventory. As Tom Hespos mentioned last week, the Web is full of discussion lists that have debated the issue for years.

Last week, The New York Times online edition announced that it would start selling “surround sessions.” The idea comes from the concept of user sessions paired with what Rex Briggs termed “surround-sound marketing.” An advertiser buys not a set number of ad exposures with banners randomly appearing on pages, but ads that actually “follow” a unique user through the site. I can buy an audience and the time it spends with the medium.

I first wrote about this idea last August. My friend Brian Monahan of Inrhythm Marketing mentioned the idea to me over two years ago, at the Society for Internet Advancement San Francisco. By packaging ad units this way, audiences become a quantifiable determinant, and advertising activities can be broken down in terms of communicative impact — like the rest of advertising is. Comparisons become meaningful.

By convincing publishers to adopt a standard that allows an advertisement to have real impact, we may get closer to having ad models offline advertisers can accept. The medium may start to grow up.

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