Why marketers should move beyond the bullshit metrics of impressions, reach, views and clicks

Vanity metrics like a million views and a billion impressions still dominate marketing conversations – but it is high time we moved to measures that track quality and not quantity, argues Truly's Tara Hunt

“Our video went viral with over 10 million views!”

“We achieved 1 billion impressions with our latest campaign!”

“We reached 5 million decision makers with our programmatic campaign.”

Okay, but what were the results? The actual results?

We were meeting with a new client the other day and, as we were talking, she pulled out her laptop and showed us the results of a social media ad campaign they were running. Her higher ups were impressed because there were so many clicks (and they were SO cheap!), but when she talked with her sales team, there wasn’t a single blip in qualified leads.

I asked her if I could drill down into the metrics a bit and she let me take over her laptop. A few clicks answered her question: these clicks were coming from places like Sri Lanka. I showed her a very quick Google search result:

Paid-to-Click is a big industry in many countries. Now you know.

Now, click fraud, impression fraud and the multiple other ways that results are inflated aren’t new, but when she asked why this keeps happening, all I could tell her was, “I think most advertisers let it fly for two reasons: #1. ego and #2. familiarity.”

Why advertisers are addicted to these numbers

In 2012, I did a short stint at an ad agency whose claim to fame was a “viral video” that won all sorts of Cannes Lions and other awards. It was a clever video. Entertaining, surprising and did a great job of demonstrating the product in an effective way. However, it was not truly “viral.”

A viral video spreads organically through networks of people who are not paid or otherwise incentivised to share it beyond the fact that they enjoyed it enough to want to pass it along. True ‘virality’ often plays out in a way that completely surprises the person who posted the video. They post something, then go about their day, but then their notifications start blowing up. Slowly at first, then the firehose happens.

We experienced a mini-version of this a few years back when my husband posted a Vine of our pug on my lap, bopping to “In Da Club” by 50 Cent.

He posted it, then we got on an airplane for vacation. When we finally found wifi, his phone exploded with notifications. We thought it was broken, but it turned out that millions of people were sharing that very simple video. In true viral fashion, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of ‘ripped’ (downloaded and re-uploaded) versions of the original Vine re-posted around the world.

On the other end of the spectrum are the ads that are said to “go viral” from brands. Now, there are truly viral ads out there – such as the original Camp Gyno by Hello Flo

Or Our Blades are F&*ing Great by Dollar Shave Club

But all-in-all, there are very few actual viral videos by brands. Quite a few years back when YouTube still allowed anyone to click and view stats on other people’s videos, I did a study of what a “paid to look viral” video versus actual viral video looked like with screenshots. I’m looking for the posts now, which is an issue itself, but what I found is that 95%+ of the views were paid for by brands.

The point is that views and clicks, which we like to believe are some sort of meritocratic measure of the quality of something are actually gamed…regularly. But why?

Imagine going to your client and saying,

“I know we achieved 10 million views last year, but this year, the goal is…wait for it…


Of course, you’d explain that these 1,000 are real people who are actually qualified leads and will likely become long term valuable customers, but 1,000? That sounds pretty lame to someone who is used to being fed the big numbers.

I have a theory that everyone is in on the view/click/impression fraud scandal — advertisers, platforms, clients, everyone — and that is why it gets talked about here and there, but nothing ever changes.

When the Wall Street Journal publishes that Facebook inflated video numbers for years, and instead of questioning this, advertisers pour more money into the platform…

…I can’t help but wonder if it’s a big conspiracy.

Changing the way we think about results

I know that not everything is about the sale and that brand awareness and building is still a very relevant reason to get a message out into the world. So not every view, impression or click should or needs to be about a conversion, but what we’re talking about here is inflated numbers and fraud and how little people actually want to address it.

But I do think that is about to change.

I’ve been asked a few times to give a comment on what I think is in store for 2019 and my answer is: a re-evaluation of what we measure and what it means.

Unless you’re a mass consumer brand (there aren’t many of those left anymore, by the way), you should be focused on how to connect with your best customer..and really only that person. You should calculate how much that customer is worth (aka customer lifetime value (CLV) — or the average amount your best customers spend in a lifecycle) and spend a decent percentage of that amount to reach them meaningfully.

That percentage usually ranges between 5%-10% of the CLV, but in early days, it may be higher in order to build brand awareness.

The metrics, then, are about quality, not quantity.

And the tactics will come from understanding that customer (way beyond demographics) and how to reach them meaningfully (in a way that doesn’t feel like an interruption, but rather, a “where have you been all of my life?”). Those metrics will all depend on the audience and your goals, so this isn’t a cookie cutter solution.

It’s not going to be an overnight shift, nor is it going to be easy, but the first step in getting there is to wean ourselves off of the BS metrics of Impressions, Clicks, Reach and Views (unless they are organic, but even then, it’s only a means, not an end).

Marketing has gotten a terrible rap over the years…and for good reason. Rather than really wanting to solve the problem we’re tasked with — connecting the brand to their market — we’ve presented a lot of smoke and mirrors and failed to take any leadership on actually solving problems. Too many marketers are focused on winning awards and accolades, which demand even more smoke and mirrors. (Side note: maybe we should create an award for real results.)

It’s time for a comeuppance in the industry. Who’s with me?

Tara Hunt is CEO and partner at Truly, a Toronto-based digital agency. A version of this article first appeared on the Truly website 


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