The Impression Must Be Destroyed: Redux

By now, you are either growing weary of this discussion and want to see a return to articles titled “How to Succeed in Online Advertising Without Really Crying,” or you are “nerding out” right along with me, wondering where the debate will go next. I hope most of you are in this latter group, and I hope not to disappoint with this latest, and possibly last (?), installment of the online media currency debate.

A good number of readers out there have been quite vocal in response to the articles of the last two weeks. Even my esteemed colleague Tom Hespos took up the issue in his ClickZ column last week. What has become abundantly clear from reading most of the responses is that I am not being abundantly clear. In fact, I feel like only Tom understands where I’m trying to navigate, even if he doesn’t agree with the way I’m using the sextant.

It seems like many folks who wrote me just read the headline and started drafting writs of execution. Unfortunately, it was my execution!

So, I would like to take this opportunity to better clarify my point when I use a title such as “The Impression Must Be Destroyed.”

First, let me just note that I am not calling for end to the cost-per-thousand (CPM) measure. I do suggest, though perhaps not so directly, that there is another way to monetize online inventory. Doing that, however, is contingent upon the adoption of a new way of thinking about inventory and what constitutes a unit of exchange. I’m not even calling for an end to the impression as it exists. I am calling for an end of the use of the impression as a currency for online media.

Second, let me try to better define “rate base,” because I reference this term a few times in the last two pieces. A rate base is a minimum circulation for a magazine guaranteed by the publisher. Basically, it is a way to guarantee advertisers that at least x number of people will have a chance to see their advertisements. It serves to fix an “opportunity to see” (OTS) and set a floor.

What I’m trying to reach (and am still working out) is an idea that encompasses both the number of actual impressions served as well as the circulation. I use “circulation” here for lack of a better term, and, for the purposes of online, it could be defined as some kind of “average monthly unique audience.”

It’s important to account for impressions because a cost is associated with each impression in online. What also needs to be considered, however, is how that translates back into a “real” unique audience — an actually countable unique audience. In print, we use the circulation, or rate base, to fix that quantity in an advertiser’s mind. It sort of “absolutizes” the ephemeral, stabilizing an audience in flux for the purposes of making other quantifiable (read: cost) decisions about goods, services, and, of course, cash flow. Without something like that in the mix, practical businesses will always have difficulties justifying online expenditures.

This is not to say that offline media is better at providing “truth” as it relates to its audiences. I think online has the potential to do that in ways that offline media never will. But what offline media has done, at least for the last 25 years or so, is construct markers, or placeholders, that do let advertisers quantify what is otherwise not very tangible.

The other reason this is such an important issue is because, in print, each impression beyond the minimum comes from an audience that is delivered at no additional cost (through pass-along and the like). Also, the print audience turns out to be greater than the circulation. In online, each impression has some cost associated with it, and the audience it translates into is actually smaller (because the same person can be exposed to the same ad more than once, barring frequency caps).

Additionally, remember that there is a serious qualitative difference between different kinds of media properties online. As I tried to point out in my article, the home page of Yahoo is a much different property than, say, The New York Times. This difference needs to manifest itself in the kind of inventory that is sold and how it is packaged. As I’ve mentioned before, perhaps one kind of property should be treated more like print; the other, more like a billboard on the highway.

Nothing is wrong with a structuralist approach to online media when it comes to buying, selling, and measuring advertising — taking the working bits and pieces from other places and incorporating them into online practices. GRPs/TRPs, reach and frequency, and CPMs/CPPs are all part of a language that traditional advertisers speak and, for the most part, understand. I would agree with some of you out there that much of what constitutes targeting and metrics in the offline world are based on research that in some instances is desperately brittle. But there is a reason that the aforementioned language is used in the traditional advertising world. It does actually have some meaning in the minds of those who are spending the money. And that’s ultimately what it is all about. Until a new generation of brand managers and VPs of advertising — one that accepts the Internet as a medium — comes into its own, we have to find a way to speak to those who do not.

If you want to be a missionary, you’ve got to learn the language of the natives.

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