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Impressions 2.0: The great equalizer

5 minute read | Kim Gilberti, SVP Product Management | February 2022

Every once in a while, a word becomes so common in our media vocabulary that we lose sight of its actual meaning. Impression is a good example. We know what it means. We’ve been using it for decades. Yet as the term is used more broadly for holistic media measurement, it’s easy to wonder if its meaning has changed along the way.

It hasn’t.

To level set, let’s agree that the word impression simply refers to the act of seeing content and advertising. Back in the early 1990s, online publishers began using the word to tell advertisers how many people saw their banner ads. Today, the media industry uses the word much more widely, and that usage is backed by comprehensive—and independent—measurement and validation standards. That evolution notwithstanding, the word still refers to people seeing content and ads.

The universal applicability of the term is precisely why impressions are the great equalizer, particularly as consumers broaden their content consumption across devices and platforms—and on their own schedules. That behavior has also advanced the industry’s move to impression-based buying and selling, which has been accelerating for some time. This year, with the incorporation of broadband-only homes into local TV measurement, that acceleration culminates as the industry adopts impressions-based buying and selling in local markets across the U.S. 

Through the transition toward Nielsen ONE, the media industry gains full comparability across linear and digital, and measurement will be complete and representative. Additionally, the industry gets comparable measurement at the subminute level

While the premise of an impression is simple, there is a layer of complexity that factors into what constitutes an impression. For comparable cross-media measurement, the move to impressions relies on existing standards that determine whether content can actually be seen by someone (i.e., viewability). 

Historically, viewability has been more of a consideration across digital platforms (due to ads below the fold, ads that don’t render, skippable ads, and more), but digital and linear are quickly converging as consumer behavior continues to transcend platform categorization. Amid the convergence, access to scheduled programming no longer requires a cable subscription. Consumers can skip ads in certain CTV applications and advertisers continue to increase their use of programmatic technology as smart TV adoption continues to proliferate. 

Viewability standards have evolved over the years, but until recently, that progression had pertained to individual platforms. Several cross-media audience measurement standards have emerged to bridge linear and digital. According to some standards, cross-platform viewability happens when 100% of the pixels from content is viewed on screen for two consecutive seconds. The standards also assume that television programming is distributed at 100% pixels.

While the media industry has been using impressions for years—even in national TV— the transition to impressions for complete and comparable cross-media measurement is a significant step. And while it’s predicated on a foundational metric that’s road tested and abundantly understood, applying it universally will be an adjustment.

Applying it across both studio- and creator-produced content will also be an adjustment, particularly with respect to the differing opinions about varied levels of content production and “quality.”  The audience and advertiser will decide on quality, and brands will likely use filters for determining where they place their advertisements, just as they do with tools like DV and IAS for determining “safe content.” Filters may vary by advertiser, but there is a need for the industry to set some basic standards, and we are keen to work with the buy-side to incorporate them into measurement. 

Any sweeping change, no matter how foreseen, will be met with at least some resistance—not to mention questions. In this instance, the questions should be easy to navigate, largely because the foundation for the road ahead already exists and the industry has standards to address questions about viewability. It will, however, take some time for the industry to fully adapt.

To help with adaptation, average commercial minute ratings will remain available for linear measurement as the industry acclimates. For true comparability across platforms, however, brands and agencies will be able to leverage Individual Commercial Metrics to activate and optimize their omni channel campaigns. 

As brands and agencies make the transition, however, it’s important for each to understand that impressions from different measurement sources will vary in quality. As with any form of measurement, impression quality will depend on comprehensive, person-level representation. And from that perspective, impressions provide a more accurate form of measurement than ratings. 

Unlike ratings-based measurement, which yields a percentage of a given universe of users, impressions reflect the actual number of times ads appear in front of viewers. That means:

  • Advertisers are better equipped to engage with the consumers they’re most interested in
  • Program performance is more accurate (i.e., audiences aren’t gained or lost to rounding)

There has never been a more critical time for all parties in the media industry to understand how consumers are engaging with media. Connectivity, device and platform proliferation, and individual choice create seemingly infinite choice for consumers—and that choice amplifies the need for measurement that’s agnostic of said choice. With the convergence of linear and digital worlds, impressions provide measurement. To make the most of impressions, it will be critical that impressions are of a quality that provide representative measurement. While there is only one definition for the word “impression,” an impression is only as good as its supporting data.

This article originally appeared on Broadcasting+Cable.

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