When a View Is Just a View

There’s a funny term in marketing: the impression. It’s like a hit or a view, but implies that you’ve created an “Impression” — as in a user has not only seen and/or heard whatever piece of marketing, but has also acknowledged, understood, appreciated and even participated in it.

But no matter how it’s described, an impression is really just a view, isn’t it? It’s a generic quantifiable number of people who have seen, but not necessarily absorbed — and certainly may not have cared — what you’ve done.

Let’s say the question on your mind right now is, “What can I do online that’s the best use of my money?” Maybe you’re thinking this because our economy seems kind of disreputable right now. (Just a guess!) It’s a fair question in any situation, though; you want to put your money to good use.

It’s 2008 and whatever marketing you do, in any medium, can theoretically be copied and transmitted anywhere. Anything good or bad — all your TV, billboards, direct mail, whatever — is on the Internet somewhere. Even radio. (I just came across a funny, older Corn Nuts radio ad encouraging people to bust a nut.) And when users share your marketing, it adds impressions. More impressions, yay!

But really, is that impression good or bad? Sometimes you know the answer. You pay attention to comments, blog posts, etc. Maybe you’re using Google and other technology properly and neutrally, and are actually paying attention to the cloud of chatter around your marketing instead of just the data directly related to a viewing of your marketing. But more often than not, you only know there are more impressions and not what those impressions mean.

It’s currently considered a high form of success to get a lot of hits, or a long term of engagement, or a high ranking on YouTube. There are heatmaps and focus groups, and metrics, metrics, metrics. I’m curious to know, though, which of these measures the crucial “Does the user give a shit” measurement?

That’s what the YouTube star ratings are for. I love the YouTube stars. They speak to something I call “endorsement.”

More than an impression, an endorsement is a stamp of approval. Which is why you should care what consumers say about you when they share online, especially in the social-media space.

Anyone with a really successful blog, or Livejournal, or Flickr or Facebook page has probably spent a few years and a few thousand hours curating and writing and cultivating an audience — creating the digital version of their online identity. In doing this, they’re establishing a voice and a curatorial judgment. They’re developing the power to endorse.

As for brands you hear about that are doing “social-networking stuff,” most screw it up. They make a clumsy mess and then think it’s the Internet that doesn’t work. Please stop, you’re dragging down the class average.

But there’s another class of brands acting like people act online. They’re slowly but surely crafting their online identities. They know who they are in the grocery store because they’ve been there for decades, but they don’t fully know who they are online because they just showed up a few years ago. So they’re trying things, making sure they’re acting in the interest of not only themselves, but their friends and customers. One day these brands will wake up with some well-earned credibility that’s going to last.

We’re currently in the stage where serious, long-term online investment is becoming a priority with every brand and marketer, not just the ones who are experimental. We need to be thinking, and helping our clients think, about whether the plans we make for them will be more or less useful as time goes on. Are you joining the conversation in a meaningful way? More importantly, are you making a contribution? Making yourself useful? Are you making a commitment to understanding your audience’s needs with your marketing in the same way you’re trying to understand their needs with the products you make?

The best way to learn about this is to learn whether a customer supports your actions. Whether they endorse them.

When is a hit more than just a hit? When does an impression mean you’ve made a real Impression?

If you want consumers to endorse you, you have to create marketing that’s meaningful and creates meaningful engagement. You also need to think about ways to facilitate how endorsements are measured so you can see, in concrete terms, if people really care; you need interactive experiences with feedback built in. This can be overt (part of the idea), or part of the context, but it needs to be more than just raw hits and traffic.

And for this to work, you have to actually care about endorsement yourself — and care about your audience.

Benjamin Palmer is co-founder and CEO of The Barbarian Group. He can be reached at benjamin@barbariangroup.com.