Reach vs. Impression: What's the Difference? (And Why It Matters)
Updated June 24, 2022
Reach and impressions are two essential metrics for marketers. By observing reach and impressions, marketers can learn more about their audience and track campaign performance. If you want to track these two metrics, you need to know what they are and how they work. In this guide, we discuss what these two metrics are, along with how you can decide between reach vs. impressions.
What is reach?
Reach is the total number of unique users who have seen a piece of content or an online advertisement. Users come across your content in a number of ways including following you on social media and searching for related keywords on social platforms or search engines. Reach is a key metric within digital marketing, as it allows the marketer to better understand the performance of a piece of content and compare it to others.
As an example, you post a new image on a social media account and share it with your 1,000 followers. If each one of your followers sees this image at least once, your reach is 1,000. However, there are additional ways to gain reach. If any of your followers share your image with their own connections, your reach continues to grow. It is common for the reach of a post to contain a sizable portion of people who are not your followers.
Measuring reach allows you to see how many people are coming across your post. If this number grows over time, you can deduce that your social media impact is growing. You can also compare different pieces of content against one another and see which ones perform best. For example, if you find that your image posts have a significantly higher reach than your written posts, you could focus more on creating image posts.
What are impressions?
Impressions are the total number of times your content was displayed to your audience. When you create a piece of content and post it online, it's possible that a user sees it more than once. Impressions measures each one of these views for each unique user. Impressions is another important metric for digital marketers because it can help them determine how engaging a piece of content is.
For example, you run an advertisement through Google to your target audience. When someone in your target audience searches for something related to your keywords, they are shown your ad. If they were to repeat this same search again in the future, they would see the same ad. In this scenario, your impressions would go up by two, one for each display.
If you discover that one of your ads has a high number of impressions, but low engagement, this could signal an issue with your ad. By tracking impressions, you can learn things like how often a person needs to see your content before engaging with it and which ads are the most effective at encouraging engagement.
Differences between reach and impressions
There are two major differences between reach and impressions:
The biggest difference is the actual numbers. It is rare that your total reach and impressions are equal. This is because each person that is exposed to your content counts for both reach and impressions, but if they see the content again, this only counts towards impressions. Therefore, impressions are always either equal to or great than your reach. The larger your audience, the less likely it is that these numbers are the same.
Platforms track reach and impressions in unique ways, sometimes calling them by different names. Here is how a few of the biggest platform track reach and impressions:
Facebook: Facebook allows advertisers to track both reach and impressions, called Facebook Reach and Facebook Impressions. They also note that these numbers are estimates, based on sample data from your campaigns.
Instagram: As Instagram is owned by Facebook, they offer similar metrics. Instagram defines reach as the number of unique users who see your post or store. Impressions are the number of times a story or post is displayed. Instagram also breaks down where your impressions come from, such as hashtags, profile or home screen.
Twitter: Twitter offers impressions, but not reach. Instead, they offer a metric called total engagements. Total engagements are the total number of times people have interacted with one of your tweets. For example, if they view your video, retweet something or click a link, this counts as an engagement.
YouTube: The video platform YouTube offers four unique metrics. Unique viewers is the same as reach, in that it shows the number of unique people who have viewed your video. Impressions count the number of times your thumbnail appears to viewers. Traffic sources for impressions show where on YouTube your thumbnail was shown. Finally, Impressions click-through-rate shows how often someone visits your video after seeing a thumbnail.
How to choose a metric: reach vs. impressions
To decide which metric helps out your digital marketing strategy the most, follow these steps:
1. Decide on a goal
Your digital marketing strategy needs to have a goal, such as increasing brand recognition or driving more traffic to your website. Which goal you want to focus on helps determine which metric you should focus on. For example, if you want to increase brand recognition, you'd likely want to focus on impressions, as this measures how many people are seeing your content, even if they don't engage with it.
You may also have a smaller goal related to your content. For example, you may want to determine if your ads are effective or if you are targeting the right audience. To determine if you're targeting the right audience, you might look at your reach. If you have a broad reach, with a good percentage coming from people who don't follow you, this is a good indicator that you're targeting the right audience. However, if you have a lot of impressions but a low click-through-rate, this could indicate poor content quality.
2. Run a test
Running a test is when you put out a new piece of content and closely track its progress, looking for certain factors. If you're trying to decide between reach and impressions, you would pick one and then test for it. For example, if your goal is to measure the effectiveness of ad copy, you may create two similar ads with different headlines. You would then record the impressions and click-through-rate for each.
3. Examine your results
After completing the test, you can analyze the results. If you found that one ad performed significantly better than the other in impressions, you could conclude that the reason was your headline.
4. Repeat the process
Now decide if the results from your test helped you reach your goal. If you tracked impressions but didn't get the answer you were looking for, try tracking reach instead. You commonly need both of these metrics for your digital marketing strategy, rather than just relying on one.
Benefits of using both reach and impressions
Rather than choosing either reach or impressions to analyze your marketing effectiveness, a better strategy is to use some combination of both. For example, by using both impressions and reach, you can calculate your frequency. Frequency is the average number of times each user sees your content. To calculate this, you take the total impressions and divide them by the total reach. Once you have this number, you can determine whether your frequency falls within the ideal range.
The ideal range for your business likely depends on the industry you are in. For a better idea as to what frequency to aim for, conduct some research into your competitors and see what frequency they target. Another option is to compare the frequency of your successful promotions versus the less successful ones. For example, if you find that your best performing ads typically have a frequency of around three, you could then work to adjust your other ads until the frequencies match.
The other benefit of tracking both metrics is preventing over-exposure. In many cases, if a customer sees your content too much or too often, this has a reverse impact. You can use the frequency metric to ensure each user is not seeing your content too often.
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