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Potential Impressions vs. Actual Impressions: Which Should You Measure?

Since Twitter updated its activity dashboard to include actual impression data, I’ve heard one question from a lot of social media marketers: “Should my team focus on potential impressions or actual impressions?”

It’s a good question, albeit a tricky one. And, as is the case with most analysis, there’s no universal answer. If there were, we’d just call it math (and I’d be out of a job).

Potential Impressions vs. Actual Impressions: Which Should You Measure?

As the breadth of social measurement grows, and we’re able to granulate specific actions, we can find very specific insights from the data we look at. In the case of impressions, this means we can find use cases for both types. Twitter’s new engagement API (now available in Simply Measured reports) allows us to access true impressions (in addition to URL clicks, and richer engagement data).

As this ability becomes available, I wanted to revisit the two types of impressions, and how this can impact you as a marketer. Which should you report on? First, lets define impressions.

What Is an Actual Impression?

Screenshot 2014-07-21 07.46.25The definition used by Twitter’s new engagement API identifies an impression as “anytime a user sees your Tweet.” Think of it like a pageview in Google Analytics. If your Tweet physically shows up on a user’s monitor, that’s an impression.

This is incredibly valuable as a marketer in the broad sense of the title. As data becomes more essential to the social marketer’s process, and tactics are formalized, social media is being fully integrated into the marketing process, no matter what that process looks like in your particular industry.

When to Use Actual Impressions

Actual impressions should replace potential impressions in most use cases. They acts as a KPI for brand awareness, a reporting metric that doesn’t require a 20-minute explanation, and a tangible way to benchmark period-over-period account health.

This KPI becomes a crucial component when setting goals and measuring success. It also highlights the importance of the megaphone model, which allows us to understand the impact that our individual actions have on our engagement, exposure, and bottom line.

Megaphone-With1The ability to benchmark period-over-period is also an essential function now that this data is available. This is a less tangible process with potential impressions, which can vary and involve a high level of assumption.

So, Do I Even Need Potential Impressions Anymore?

Let’s define a potential impression, which is more complex than an actual impression. The main reason this metric exists is because in a lot of cases, actual impression data doesn’t.

Potential impressions on Twitter are the total number of times a Tweet from your account or mentioning your account could appear in users’ Twitter feeds during the report period.

The keyword here is “could.” Because of this, marketers have a few different ways of focusing their measurement around the metric. At Simply Measured, we’ve allowed our users to calculate potential impressions in three different ways, highlighted here.

To simplify the explanation, when a user mentions your Twitter handle and it isn’t an @reply, the potential impressions are the sum total of their followers.

When to Use Potential Impressions

Throughout the history of traditional media, potential impressions were an important way for advertisers and marketers to get a glimpse at how many users might see their message.

The same has been true in the digital space as well, but as useful and game-changing as it is, the advent of actual impression data on Twitter doesn’t make the metric obsolete.

Looking for trends that cause potential impressions to spike can be useful for finding behavior that is beneficial to replicate. For example, you might do something that drives up potential impressions but doesn’t show an increase in actual impressions, like interacting with an influencer, but during non-peak times, when their audience wouldn’t be exposed to the interaction. You want to know what opportunity was missed that kept you from increasing actual impressions.

In addition to tactical analysis, actual impression data isn’t universal yet. Since potential impressions are still a standard across many social networks, keeping your cross-channel analysis standardized can be a crucial component of your strategy.

Take Aways

The use cases for each type of analysis are close, but with some key differences. While actual impressions will allow for concrete, integrated measurement, potential impressions still have a very important place in the social measurement repertoire.

Luckily, we’ve worked closely with Twitter to make sure both can be measured in one Twitter account report from Simply Measured. If you’re a Simply Measured user, authenticate your owned Twitter accounts in Simply Measured by following the instructions provided on our Help Section.

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Kevin Shively

I lead marketing for Simply Measured. Recovering journalist. My team is embarrassed of my hilarious jokes. Firm believer that the best marketers are the best storytellers and the best storytellers use the best data.

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