What does a guaranteed impression actually guarantee?

Image from proaudiotraining.com.

I’m sick of hearing about guaranteed impressions. Scratch that. I’m sick of hearing about guaranteed impressions as a stand-alone success metric for marketing campaign evaluations. Know what I mean?

Maybe you do, but for those who don’t, let me start by defining the term. Guaranteed impressions are a metric that has been a staple of paid media for a while now. When your marketing department buys a print or display ad, or puts an ad on TV or radio, the sites, publications or orgs they’re buying from guarantee a number of people who are going to “see” the placement.

CMOs and all executives for that matter have historically loved guaranteed impressions. Quite often they come in as big numbers, in the millions depending on from whom you’re buying. They look good on a bar graph and pop in red font on a scorecard.

But guaranteed impressions can come across as false advertising to your clients, company and leadership about what your efforts are actually bringing to the table. Think about it:

  • Just because I bought an ad in the local newspaper, does that mean everybody who gets the paper actually saw it? Of course not.
  • Just because I placed an ad on a website that gets 300,000 visits a month, does that mean everybody noticed it or thought about it? Um, no. In fact, there is interesting research about how few people actually look at the ads on Google when conducting a search. And those are ads showing when the user doesn’t know for what he/she is looking.
  • Just because I created an ad and bought time on a TV or radio show, does that mean everyone watching that program watched or listened to my commercial? Sorry, not even close. Thanks to DVR and channel switching, even fewer people are watching those commercials than in recent history.

Now it may sound like I’m saying print, display, radio and TV ads have no merit. But I’m not. I’m not one of those PR pros who’s all about earned and social media opportunities and thinks traditional marketing is a waste of money. Heck, we misrepresent earned PR placements when we quote the circulation number as how many people saw a magazine story, for example. What I want you to walk away with here is that guaranteed impressions are only one piece of the puzzle, one side of the story. And bigger numbers don’t necessarily mean better.

Let me ask you a question. What’s more beneficial to your business in an offline setting? A chance to give your business pitch and pass out your cards to a large group of people you don’t know or the chance to sit down face-to-face with one, two or three professionals, get to know them better, understand their business and build a relationship?

If you said the former, I don’t think you’re being honest with yourself. If you said the latter, the same is true online. Social media can provide us guarantees that impressions just can’t bring – guaranteed opportunity to listen to someone’s perspective, have a conversation and to target your relationships.

I can’t guarantee social media will solve all your business problems. In fact, I can likely guarantee that a mix of social and traditional tactics integrated to meet your overall objectives and goals will likely be the best approach. But one thing I will guarantee – marketers who keep guaranteeing impressions and going are going to start losing leadership’s trust. And you know what, they should. Because they aren’t telling all sides of the measurement story.

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ginidietrich 5721 pts

You touched on it briefly, but I think it's important to note that PR pros also quote impression numbers, based on a multiple of circulation. And they're bogus. Sure, earned media also has its place in the world and sure, stories are pretty darn credible. But until our industry stops using impressions as a measurement tool, it's going to be hard to convince clients.

We have one client, for instance, that works with a big global ad agency...and us. And they keep asking us for impressions. After the first year, I gave up trying to educate them. You're right - the numbers pop in a big red font at the board meeting and, let's face it, no one ever gets fired for having too many impressions.

I don't like it, but there are lots and lots of companies who hire PR and advertising agencies to check it off the list. Until we all begin to move toward proving our worth on the bottom line (investment vs. cost), we're going to fight this impressions battle.

ginidietrich 5721 pts

I should have read the comments first - I see BethHarte and I agree on this.

JGoldsborough 247 pts

ginidietrich We deal withe the exact same scenraios sometimes, Gini. Glad to see it is not only us :). prtini and I have talked a lot about how in a situation like that, we have to give the clients what they want -- impressions -- and hope that success opens the doors for conversations about the rest of the social media measurement puzzle. We are fighting years and years of impression mindset build up. Not going to shift mentality in just a few days, weeks or months. But conversations like this one hopefully help us move the needle.

The key is leadership, IMO, as nateriggs mentioned. Because most companies are managed top-down. That's how culture is formed and if leadership said we are going to de-emphasize impressions, then that's exactly what would happen.

geoffliving 305 pts

I thought those radio guys were done with that. I told them the ad kit sucked!

JGoldsborough 247 pts

geoffliving I've definitely heard the guaranteed impressions positioning from all sides at one time or another. Today one of my friends was talking to a writer for an established online publication. He asked about a campaign she worked on and she explained how it was targeted and how her team always did "influencer" research to reach the right people for the brand. The writer responded -- "How many people have visited the site?" When she told him, he said "That's not very many."

To quote Charlie Brown, "Oh, good grief!"

Laurent 8 pts

I interpret what you wrote to be one more example of the struggle between quantity and quality. Still, too many business/brand marketers are going after the larger number of fans/followers because they think they will read whatever they push there. And they count "our tweet have been seen/read by xyz people, a function of whatever # of followers they have". Of course this is spam and it's worthless ;-).
A quote I like says: "success is a lot about having enough of the right people to like you". In the world of FB/web1.0 marketers, it's altered into "success is a lot about having enough people to like you" ;-). Just missing one word leads to a critical misunderstanding!


JGoldsborough 247 pts

Laurent Hi there. That is a great distinction you make with the quotes. Right on target. I don't really think mass impressions or followers numbers are spam. They just aren't an accurate representation of our marketing or PR efforts by themselves. They make up one piece of the puzzle. Social media helps us more easily influence, account for the other pieces, like actions and outputs, per Shonali 's comment. Thnaks for stopping by.

Laurent 8 pts

JGoldsborough Shonali I meant to say that a brand accumulating 100k followers or fans and tweeting about themselves (the brand) is close to spam...it's no different than email spam. I think social media is about network/community/a few to a few.
I agree with Shonali's comment btw.

JGoldsborough 247 pts

Laurent Shonali Yes, one of my colleague's and I call that throwing business cards online. People would never do it offline, but they do online.

nateriggs 34 pts

Wow. Toally spot on with thsi J. Unfortunately, the advertising industry also comes with very skilled sales people who work hard to paint a foggy picture of value around guarenteed impressions. At the end of the day, I think the debacle comes down to organizational culture in large corps. Why does a newly promoted CMO or VP get sucked into the buying the guranteed impressions pitch?

1. Their boss did at one point - status quo
2. The mentailuty of "the more $ we throw at this problem, the better off we will be".

Both of those can have critical impact on a business...

JGoldsborough 247 pts

nateriggs You are right on with the leadership POV. We are all impacted by "how we were raised." Don't ever tell my wife I agreed with that statement though, because she told me that when we met and I called BS :).

How we were raised addresses our relationships with our parents and families, but also how we were raised in the business world. It takes a strong person to point out change, but a much stronger one to actually make change a reality. CMOs and VPs are in a tough position. That said, they are charged with being fiscally responsible and doing what's best for the brand. I can guarantee you when they focus on large numbers of impressions alone, that's not what they are doing.

kdpaine 25 pts

Here here! Finally, some sanity in the marketplace!

JGoldsborough 247 pts

kdpaine Thanks, Katie. Appreciate that sentiment form you since you are one of the people who started this conversation in my experience. Cheers!

Shonali 1296 pts

Well said, Justin. What do they say about guarantees, that nothing in life is guaranteed other than death and taxes? One of the reasons we have such trouble with PR measurement is that our friends in the ad and "marketing" worlds keep using this kind of nonsense.

I think you, I and many other people are of a similar opinion that folks who keep "guaranteeing" stuff like this should lose leadership's trust. But I honestly don't know if they have; it seems every time we get rid of one bogus metric, another one shows up to take its place, and then everyone's running around like chickens with their heads cut off over it.

This is precisely the reason I try (as you know) to beat it into people that it's impact and outcomes that matter, what we achieved at the end of the day. Because if we didn't achieve what we set out to, what difference do impressions, guarantees and pretty charts and graphs make?

JGoldsborough 247 pts

Shonali To be honest, I cringed a bit when I wrote that trust line for just the reason you mentioned above. I think leadership has a huge role in this. Because no matter how clear our argument against guaranteed anything appears, if my boss is telling me number size matters, then number size matters. That's the scary part, IMO.

I hesitated from calling guaranteed impressions a lie in my post. But I really think that if they are positioned by themselves, they are a lie. So is Klout score. So is Technorati rank and authority. So is site traffic.

There is no one-metric-tells all scenario. I guarantee you that :).

BethHarte 58 pts

Shonali Shonali, it's not just the marketers propagating the fallacy of "guaranteed" impressions. It's PR folks as well. I can't tell you how many PR pros I have worked with that used impressions as a metric -- especially a metric for their own success.

And when the marketing, communications and PR management teams demand guaranteed impressions, they force marketing and PR people to feed into the silliness.

What I seriously have to wonder is do people really, truly believe that every person who subscribes to a newspaper, magazine, website, blog, cable provider, etc., etc. REALLY watch, read and comprehend every ad and article. Anyone with an average IQ knows that can possibly be true.

JGoldsborough 247 pts

BethHarte Shonali That's why we have to keep asking questions. Because others will keep their heads down and do what their company has always done. That kind of a mentality is scary in marketing, PR or life. Conversation is what can change that mentality, IMO. Thanks for stopping by, Beth.

Shonali 1296 pts

BethHarte I agree, Beth, but IMHO PR folks are usually overseen/report into "marketing," and thus use the "metrics" that makes sense to them - sometimes even if they don't like to. It's like nateriggs said, if your boss did it, you're more likely to do it without questioning it.

I personally have never met PR pros who have used "guaranteed" impressions; they've certainly used impressions, and no matter how much we rail against the fact that impressions without context don't mean anything, I don't see that going away any time soon. But then, I haven't met all the PR pros in the world, and am unlikely to do so.

BethHarte 58 pts

Shonali I haven't bumped into any marketers guaranteeing impressions (maybe they knew better?!), but I have no doubts it happens. I think the overall issue for both marketing and PR is that impressions is an antiquated metric. There is no way in marketing or PR to say that people saw, read and comprehended anything. Unless,of course, there is benchmarking and surveying pre and post (and that is rare! And even more rare in marketing). I get that there needs to be some "sales" point for media outlets, but until their numbers stop being inflated, I am not sure what the answer is.

As a marketer and PR practitioner, do I want to know that I have the "potential to reach" a certain number of people? Of, course. But I am smart enough to know that the reality is a very, very small number.

What would you suggest as a metric? (That's addressed to anyone...not just Shonali).

I hope I haven't sidetracked this conversation. My wheels are just spinning now. :)

Shonali 1296 pts

BethHarte What I try to focus on when I teach, speak, work with clients, etc., is the outcomes they want to achieve, and that's where we start with the strategy. Big numbers aka impressions are all very well - and who wouldn't want a good story in a "top" media outlet, for example - but if it's not going to make much of a difference to one's bottom line, what good is it beyond a vanity piece?

When people focus on the outcomes/impact/whatever you want to call it, measurement becomes very straightforward. Either you (general "you") achieved your goals, or you didn't. And what I'm seeing, particularly with nonprofit organizations who don't have a huge measurement budget (if they have a budget at all) is that they don't care about the bells and whistles that sophisticated dashboards can bring to them - they focus on their analytics and other "hard" measures to see if they are moving closer to achieving the desired outcomes.

As you and I both know, outputs are only the start of it all. The rest has to be measured as well, IMHO.

Btw, I think some of the biggest offenders in the "impressions" game, on the PR side, are mat release services. There are quite a few that are still using multipliers. O.M.G.

BethHarte 58 pts

Shonali You know we are in total agreement (we knew that all along)! That said, the "guaranteed impressions" started as something marketers do. You and I both know that most marketers do not really plan (a "real" measurable plan, that is), let alone understand what outcome measurement is. If they did...a lot more agencies and marketers would get fired (especially management) for failing to show measurable success, including ROI.

I really try to get people to focus on planning...it's so very important. Without a plan it's so easy to get swept up in impressions (and all that is shiny), because goal(s), objectives and strategies haven't even been defined.

JGoldsborough 247 pts

BethHarte Shonali So many great points you all hit on here. A few thoughts from my end:
-- Marketers are still using guaranteed impressions frequently. And execs like big numbers until they are educated differently. Sol big numbers often earn big budget dollars.
-- PR is still using mutlipliers. I wanted to buy into them, but I couldn't find the .1 part of the 2.1 in our household, so it never made sense to me :).
-- Too many marketers and PR pros allows impressions to stand alone without couching them and talking about engagement, influence or actions. That is completely irresponsible, IMO.
-- As far as measurement goes, it starts with a strategic plan that includes goals, strategy, objectives and tactics. And those objectives MUST be measureable. Then, how are the tactics -- social media or otherwise -- helping the brand achieve those objectives? Long-term, we should try and track ROI too. But when it comes to social media, we have to remind leadership how they have always valued WOM offline and that social media is just WOM online.

Great convo. Thanks for stopping by. I always learn so much from both of you


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lauren Fernandez, JGoldsborough and Rich Pulvino, Elissa Freeman. Elissa Freeman said: RT @cubanalaf: If you're a PR pro, you should read this. "Guaranteed impressions" = lame. Good post by @jgoldsborough http://bit.ly/ib4hUr [...]

  2. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Heather Whaling, JGoldsborough. JGoldsborough said: @prtini Hey Heather, I just mentioned you in my comment on "What does a guaranteed impression actually guarantee?": http://fyre.it/ru [...]