Impressions and marketing metrics - The WYSIWYG of media

WYSIWYG, What You See Is What You Get, started as an acronym for software development. It means that what you see on the screen is what you get in the final product. Perhaps we should think more about WYSIWYG in the media world as well.

After all, the basic condition of being able to see an ad (or hear if it is radio) seems like a reasonable foundation for the likelihood of that ad having some impact on the receiver. Or to turn it around, ads you can’t see are unlikely to have any effects whatsoever on you. They won’t build the brand and they certainly won’t generate any likes, site visits or sales. And yet much of our focus on marketing metrics in media planning, buying and reporting seems to forget that simple requirement. It could be that an unfortunate use of terminology has caused us to go astray. But we should always remember the words of Dennis Potter: ”The problem with words is that they don’t always say what they mean.”

What is an impression?

So then, what does “impression” actually mean? The Merriam Webster dictionary lists eight main definitions, with number six given as “page view”. It also comes with a clarification: “especiallyan instance in which a specific element (such as an advertisement) is displayed on a web page accessed by a user.” Unfortunately, the dictionary is wrong here. So let’s go through the details.


The dictionary definition sounds clear and makes sense, right? An impression is something you can see. Or at least, so it should be. So why, then, do most advertising reporting distinguish between “impressions” and “viewable impressions”? And why is the latter only about 60% of the former? And above all, what is the difference between an impression and a viewable impression (not to mention the oxymoron represented by an impression that is not viewable)?


The difference between impressions and viewable impressions

It is indeed an unfortunate mix-up of definitions and terminology. In the beginning, a web page filled the screen with its content. But it did not take long for the content to grow way beyond the limitations of the size of the screen, and as a result requiring the user to scroll down (or up, or sideways) to see the full page. And at roughly the same time the difference between something being visible on the page and something visible in screen became highly relevant.

Even though the use of words is very unfortunate, and sometimes varies between media companies just to add to the confusion, the most common definitions are these:

  • An ad impression is when the content of the ad is requested from the ad server and delivered to the user’s browser.
  • A viewable ad impression is when that ad content is actually viewable by the user, i.e. it is visible on the screen. That is why a viewable impression is also frequently called an in-screen impression. If we compare it to the physical world, an impression is like the newspaper being delivered to your house. A viewable impression is like you picking up and opening the newspaper and at least flicking through the page spread where the ad is posted. 

But we need to go back to Dennis Potter one more time. Again where are entering into a semantic minefield, because there is a subtle four-letter difference between a viewable impression and a viewed impression. Or in the newspaper reference, between flicking the pages and actually reading them. So in other words WYSIWYG is not quite what you get after all. 


Programmatic advertising and the programmatic poop funnel

Bob Hoffman, also known as the Ad Contrarian, is one of the most refreshing (or controversial, depending on your own point of view) commentators on the state of advertising today. When explaining what programmatic advertising is, he coined the phrase “the advertising poop funnel” in which he demonstrates that for every $1 spent on programmatic advertising, only 3 cents goes to actual ads viewed by actual people. We can always discuss the metrics, the numbers and the choice of data he has used, but some things are certainly not to be argued about. 

  1. If an ad is not visible on your screen, you are not going to notice it.
  2. If an ad is visible on your screen, it is still highly likely that you are not going to notice it. Most ads have much less than 50% attention rate, i.e. the chance that people who are able to see the ad actually focus their eyes on it.
  3. If you advertise, what is important is therefore not what is viewable (although it is a good start), but what is actually viewed. Because if we want the advertising to make more people like your brand a little bit more and as a result buy some of your products, the only way that will happen is if they actually see your ad. 


So how do we measure marketing performance?

After all, it is people who buy things. It is people who form impressions about brands. And it is people who recommend brands to their friends. So, when you choose your marketing metrics, when you plan, measure and report your advertising activities, don’t focus on what is being sent. Focus on what has been seen.


And maybe it is time, at least when it comes to media metrics, to change the WYSIWYG to WTSIWYG: What They Saw Is What You Got.