The Lost Art of Measuring an Impression

I started my career many years ago in direct mail. Because of the high cost and time involved in producing the actual pieces, there was a lot of scrutiny over who was going to receive the offer. There were countless hours and care devoted to developing offers that were ideal for the selected audience, creating hypotheses around expected performance, and defining measures of success.

Over the years, I have talked about devaluing some of the tried and true direct mail metrics that grew to mean so much to me more than 15 years ago. But as the email channel continues to mature, there is a greater need to get back to the basics and reinstitute value in some of the proven measures of success from the past, particularly the impression.

An impression counts as a single time that your brand is viewed by a consumer or target audience member. Many digital marketing channels still value (and sometimes even charge by) an impression. For example, every time a display ad is served, it is an impression. Paid search content rendered counts as an impression. Email served in the inbox…technically IS an impression, though it is not measured or valued as an industry-accepted metric. I think that needs to change.

Many believe that because the email marketing message is competing for attention with other messages in the inbox, very little value can be attributed to it. However, display and paid search similarly compete for attention, yet value is still implied. Others argue that an impression is an implied metric resulting from the measurement of inbox placement; the problem is that if the message landed in the inbox and wasn’t opened, then today no further measurement is done.

The reality is that as marketers become more skilled at marrying the name in the “From” field, subject line, and pre-header copy to present a cohesive concept, fewer and fewer emails are actually opened because subscribers understand the value of the message without ever having to open it. If a consumer can completely understand the purpose of the email communication without opening it, yet is still interested in the small amount of content that was shared and goes to the website to convert directly…shouldn’t the email receive credit for that impression? Today the email is not credited with the impression, though it should be.

As digital and email marketers, we have been spoiled by absolutes; knowing exactly who opened the email, when it was opened, where they linked from the email, how long they were in the site, how many pages were visited before they purchased, and ultimately what was purchased. Because we have those absolutes (and so many more) we have lost focus on metrics that are softer, but just as important.

So in the above scenario, how might a brand attribute value to an email impression? It is important to start with a weighted calculation to understand the period of time that can pass following the impression in order for that particular impression to be included and valued in a metric. A number of brands have made this determination based on previous customer purchase behavior, barriers to conversion, and price point. Many brands I have worked with have assigned a general period of three to seven days as an impression factor. For arguments sake, let’s use three days. The brand would compare anyone that received an email on day one and did not open it to a list of email addresses for online purchasers in the last three days to find commonalities. Where there are commonalities, look to AOV for a directional understanding of the value of an impression on the inbox.

Doing this type of analysis is not a direct, exact science, but measuring offline impression in the direct mail world never was either – yet it was a completely acceptable measurement method that for years was relied on by marketers. Let’s get back to making a positive impression on our customers, and actually measure that email marketing impression!

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