One of the most common PR measurement questions we receive is, “What is the value of an impression?”

The short answer: nothing. Impressions are worth nothing by themselves.

The long answer has a fair bit of nuance to it.

Why do we measure impressions? Impressions are a diagnostic metric; if your earned media placement or advertisement is seen by zero people, then for certain we can determine that its impact to your business is also zero.

Second, impressions are the precursor to their outcomes. Ideally, an impression leads to a change in awareness or perception, if it’s impactful.

An unimpactful impression is one in which there was no change to awareness or perception. For example, I drive past billboards and advertisements every morning on the commute to work. I can’t recall a single brand or product on any recent drive. The billboard owner would count my drive as an impression when selling that space to advertisers, but I have not changed my awareness or perception.

Contrast that impression with the impression you’ll receive after watching this hilarious short ad (not a client, no relationship, mildly NSFW for the most conservative workplaces):

You only need to watch that once, and your awareness and perception has changed significantly. Set a reminder on your smartphone for a week later and see if you can NOT remember this video after only one viewing.

Impressions thus vary in quality. Poor quality impressions do nothing to change awareness and perception. High quality impressions grow awareness and improve perception. How do we assign a value, then, to impressions as they relate to the work we do in earned media?

Here’s a simple way to do so: measure how often people search for you by name. The example brand and product above, Squatty Potty, is more than 5 years old. Yet when you look in Google Trends, we see that the brand achieved some prominence early in 2015 for an appearance on Shark Tank, but didn’t really hit its stride until October 2015 when its rather colorful ad came out:

Above, we see the value of the impressions from this particular ad, dwarfing everything else they’ve tried to do to build awareness and perception in the last 5+ years. We can see a direct impact in terms of search volume from this particular piece of media. If search volume then leads to website traffic, you can measure the value of that website traffic using goals and goal values in Google Analytics (or the web analytics software of your choice) and ultimately reverse engineer the value of the impressions and the awareness/perception they created.

How else could you measure awareness and perception? Create a brand lift survey, asking people their intent to purchase your products or services, and then measure before and after your earned media initiatives:

Above, we see that my audience’s intent to purchase changed dramatically when I released a new product and announced it with an influencer campaign, represented by the green bars that indicate intent to purchase from an on-site survey. I can then correlate purchase intent with actual sales to determine how impactful my campaigns have been.

What have we learned? Because all impressions are not created equal, we can’t assign a universal value to the impression.

Measure instead what impressions create: awareness and perception, and then assign values to these outcomes using your marketing analytics software.