The Impression Must Be Destroyed! (Part 1)

“Who knows what evil lurks in your plumbing?”
–A-De-Do Plumbing, Anaheim, CA

I’m at it again: another assault on the impression as online media currency. I really can’t stand that thing, that impression, that bothersome mote in all of our eyes.

We’ve expended enough energy talking about what to do about the impression. By now we could have either developed something new and put it into practice or built a wonder of the world. I advocate developing something new and putting it into practice.

First, we need to understand the limitations of an impression as it is used online versus what an impression means in the rest of the advertising industry.

Yes, that’s right. There is a whole advertising industry out there that existed long before the Internet. It has accrued a vast body of knowledge and techniques for assessing business and marketing objectives and for determining communications goals, media mix, ad effectiveness, and impact of advertising activities to achieve them.

The reason for tackling the impression here is primarily driven by economics. Talk to buyers or sellers of online advertising. They’ll all tell you that the issue of defining impressions is one of their top priorities. What none of them say outright, I think mostly because it is a more internalized issue than a conscious one, is that the importance of defining impressions and the industry’s insistence on living with them are driven by economics. Pricing, billing, and reconciling are all done against impressions. This means money. This representation is made in terms of the cost per thousand (CPM).

Let’s look at traditional advertising to better understand where the CPM comes from. Let’s use broadcast as our example.

CPMs in broadcast are not based solely on unique audience. A broadcast CPM is derived from multiplying the rating points by the universe (audience), then dividing by 100 (ratings are percentages). A CPM can be calculated by dividing the cost of your advertising package by the number of impressions you come up with, then multiplying by 1,000.

The real problem with online CPMs versus CPMs in other media is that when I use the CPM in offline media, my comparative values are all based on a universe. This universe is based on my audience. That audience is based on my target. So, I pay CPMs that are against, say, males ages 25-54 in the top 10 DMAs (designated market areas, for you Internet-only folks).

With online, I essentially get gross CPMs. The impressions against which most online CPMs are determined are against the masses, not a specific target. In broadcast, the equivalent is the adult 18+ target. This basically means everybody. Rating points against adults aged 18 or older are called GRPs, or gross rating points. Ratings points against, say, males ages 25-54 in the top 10 DMAs are called TRPs, or targeted rating points. With GRPs, you can be cumulative; with TRPs, you cannot. TRPs have to be weighted to reflect the total size of your universe (target).

This distinction doesn’t exist in the online media buying space. I therefore pay for CPMs that are based entirely on an untargeted audience. I know Tig Tillinghast and I have talked about this before (I think even with each other). Given the way impressions are sold online, I might as well be buying outdoor.

Outdoor offers loads of impressions, all untargeted. Most online media doesn’t offer much more than that, save perhaps the “targeting” that results from audiences that are assumptive based on content of a particular site (which is slightly more analogous to print).

The impression does, both on- and offline, represent an advertising exposure — or, better stated, the possibility of an advertising exposure. The impression doesn’t mean anything more than that in online. That’s the problem.

Unless sites can figure out a way to sell truly targeted impressions or give me an idea of the demographic composition of their sites and set CPMs accordingly, the CPMs we pay now should be similar to those we pay for outdoor. The quality of those impressions aren’t so different.

Which leads to my rallying cry: The impression must be destroyed!

OK, maybe not obliteration like that of the Great Library of Alexandria or the razing of the Great Temple, but destroyed as the currency of online media.

What should replace the impression is…

Tune in next week, Bat-fans, for the conclusion!

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