Let’s say you’ve just launched an advertising campaign or published a piece of content, and you want to see how it’s doing. You open up your analytics dashboard and see two words pop up over and over: “impressions” and “reach.” You’re sure those are two separate things, but you’ve never fully understood the difference.
What exactly is the difference between “reach” vs. “impressions”? Which one should you be paying attention to? And what do these terms mean for your marketing operation?
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The difference between reach vs. impressions
Reach and impressions mean different things on different platforms. What Facebook calls “impressions” Twitter used to refer to as “reach,” for example. But in general, they describe two concepts:
Reach refers to the total number of people who have seen your ad or content. If 100 total people have seen your ad, that means your ad’s reach is 100.
Impressions refer to the number of times your ad or content has been displayed on a screen. Let’s say that your ad from the previous example popped up on those people’s screens a total of 300 times. That means the number of impressions for that ad is 300.
To understand how each metric works, let’s look at how each major platform defines the two terms.
Facebook reach vs. impressions
Facebook officially defines “reach” as: “the number of people who saw your ads at least once.” It organizes reach into three categories: organic, paid, and viral.
Organic reach refers to the number of unique people who saw your content organically (for free) in the Facebook News Feed.
Paid reach is the number of people on Facebook who saw a piece of content that has been paid for, like an ad. It’s often directly affected by factors like ad bids, budgets and audience targeting.
Viral reach is the number of people who saw your content because one of their friends interacted with it.
Reach on Facebook is different from impressions, which Facebook defines as: “the number of times your ads were on screen.” A unique user could see a post three times in their feed throughout the duration of the campaign. That would count as three impressions.
Neither “reach” nor “impressions” indicate that someone has actually clicked on, or even seen your ad.
Facebook also says that a video is “not required to start playing for the impression to be counted.” A better way to put it would be that impressions measure the number of times your content might have been seen.
So how do we know whether any of the “reach” or “impressions” we’re getting are actually real? To answer this question, Facebook divides impressions into two categories: “served” and “viewed.”
If an ad is “served,” that means simply that the ad has been paid for and that the system has decided to deliver the ad somewhere (to the top of a highly-visible news feed, an ad box in a sidebar, etc.).
“Served” ads don’t need to appear on screen (they could remain “below the fold,” as Facebook puts it) or even finish rendering to count as a “served” impression.
“Viewed” impressions, on the other hand, don’t count unless the user sees the ad appear on their screen. If the user doesn’t scroll to see the ad, or navigates away from the page before it loads, then the ad does not count as “viewed.”
Twitter reach vs. impressions
Twitter doesn’t track “reach,” so the reach vs. impressions question is a little bit more straightforward. Twitter defines an “impression” as any time a Twitter user sees one of your tweets—either in their feed, search results, or as part of a conversation.
Let’s say you have 1,000 followers and every single one of them sees your latest tweet (or ad). That means that tweet received 1,000 impressions. Now let’s say you reply to that tweet with another tweet. Your followers see the original tweet again, along with your reply. That will result in an additional 2,000 impressions, for a total of 3,000 total impressions.
It’s important to remember that the way you use the platform will have a drastic effect on the average number of impressions per tweet.
Replies in response to other people’s tweets will often get far fewer impressions than tweets you publish into your followers’ news feeds. So if you spend a lot of time replying to people on Twitter, the number of impressions per tweet reported in your analytics might be skewed downward.
Reach vs. impressions on other networks
Instagram treats “reach” and “impressions” almost exactly the same way that Facebook does. Reach refers to the total number of unique accounts that have seen your post or story. Impressions measure the total number of times users saw your post or story.
Snapchat treats “reach” and “impressions” slightly differently—it calls them “reach” and “story views.”
Google AdWords calculates two different kinds of reach: “cookie-based reach” and “unique reach.” The first measures unique users the traditional way, using cookies. Unique reach goes one step further by estimating and omitting duplicate views from the same user.
In Google Analytics, the relevant metrics here are “users” and “page views.” “Users” measures the number of people who have visited your site at least once during the relevant time range. “Page views” is the total number of pages viewed by all of your users.
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What’s best to track?
Reach and impressions refer to two distinct activities, so which metric you choose to pay more attention to will depend on what your goals are. Let’s start with why you might want to focus on impressions.
Why focus on impressions?
You might track impressions if you’re worried about overwhelming users with too many ads. If you want to avoid this, you might want to focus on increasing reach, rather than impressions.
Impressions also come in handy when you want to track your ads on a moment-to-moment basis. If you deploy an ad and it immediately gets few to no impressions, that could be an early sign that there’s something wrong with its framing or content.
Why focus on reach?
Reach can also help you figure out whether there’s something wrong with your ads. If your ads have reached a lot of people but you haven’t had a single conversion, for example, that might mean you have to revise the framing or content of the ad.
If your content has broad reach, on the other hand, that means it’s successfully making its way to many new users, which means that it’s more likely to be shared and engaged with.
Why track both impressions and reach?
Impressions and reach tell you very different things about the performance of your ads and content. More often than not, you will have to use both metrics together to figure out the effectiveness of a campaign or ad.
To figure out your ‘effective frequency’
Comparing impressions to reach is tricky, because impressions will (by definition) always be equal to or higher than reach. Every user included in your reach count will have seen your content at least once, and most will probably have seen it numerous times. How many times?
To figure that out, we divide total impressions by total reach to get the average number of impressions per user. (People call this “ad frequency,” “frequency,” or “average impressions per user” interchangeably.)
So how many average impressions per user is good?
Most research around brand awareness suggests that users have to have seen an ad at least several times before they begin to become aware of the brand. Advertisers refer to this as the “effective frequency”—the number of times someone sees an ad before they respond to it.
General Electric’s Herbert E. Krugman suggested that three exposures were enough to make someone aware of your brand. Back in 1885, London businessman Thomas Smith suggested that it took twenty.
In all likelihood, the effective frequency for your business will be highly particular to your industry and product. If you want to get a sense of what a reasonable impressions per user count is, try getting some insight into what competitors in your space are aiming for.
To prevent ‘ad fatigue’
Figuring out your ‘effective frequency’ is also important because it tells you how many times users can see your ad before they get annoyed.
How many impressions per user is too many will depend entirely on your social media goals. If you want to slowly build brand awareness in a small niche, an in-your-face campaign with lots of impressions per user is probably not the way to go.
But if you have a time-sensitive promotion and are looking to expose it to as many people as possible, a high impressions per user count could be a good goal.
What to track besides reach and impressions
Impressions and reach can tell you a lot about how your content is performing in the moment. But it’s important to remember that they tell you nothing about whether someone has actually clicked or engaged with your content.
If you want to measure your social media ROI, and are focused on short and medium-term returns, focusing on business conversions is still key. At the end of the day, site traffic, leads generated, sign-ups, conversions and revenue are much more concrete measures of campaign success.
If you want to draw a direct line between advertising spend and ROI, pair reach and impression metrics with conversion and revenue data. Make sure to connect reach to more concrete measures, like sign-ups and revenue.
One way to do this is to divide revenue by total users reached to get ’average revenue per user reached.’
Doing so can help you understand how advertising spend and your efforts to increase reach are resulting in concrete returns.
For more metrics—and the reasons they’re worth tracking—check out our full guide to social media analytics.