Impressions Still Matter, but Digital Marketers Must Stay Innovative About Driving Actions

New methods can nudge consumers to the end of the purchase funnel

Impressions are everything. At least that’s what we all thought for the first two decades of digital marketing.

As advertising becomes more precise, advertisers are no longer satisfied with impressions. They want to pay for actions closer to the outcome they need: pay-per-click, pay-per-conversion, pay-per-sale and pay-per-lead. Even brand awareness, long the muddiest of metrics, has become a little more precise.

Before there were display ads and servers to count, measurement meant taking a best guess at how many readers, listeners or viewers might have been exposed to your message based on circulation counts and broadcast ratings (this is still true for print, radio and TV). Digital advertising, especially display ads, was a leap forward. A marketer could now definitively say, “My ad was pasted in front of a set of eyeballs X number of times.” And the ability to pay only for what you got gave marketers tremendous control.

But eyeballs don’t mean sales or even interest. At the end of the day, an impression is just exposure and a vague measure of the impact marketing has on revenue, which is the measure on which most CMOs want to hang their hat.

The trend is clear: Marketers want to pay for actions closer to the outcome they need. I call this specific action marketing. (Yes, I made that up just now, in my quarantine workspace.) It’s the ability to choose different channels, vendors and marketing products to drive specific actions from prospects and still pay only for what you get.

New methods, new vendors

This trend is driving existing vendors like publishers and social networks to create new products, and elevating new vendors like trade associations that can open a new route to the customer.

Pay-per-click and pay-per-conversion rely mostly on the same products as impressions, such as display ads and social posts, but with a greater reliance on email and landing pages, where the job is less about volume and more about quality. As we move down the funnel and closer to the sale, we have to create new, more engaging tools to capture an audience that is more vested in the product category and push them to the next stage of the funnel.

Pay-per-lead is the most important KPI for this part of the funnel, and no area of marketing is as exciting right now as account-based marketing, which is all about narrow sets of leads. Account-based marketing relies on the ability of a marketer to identify a pool of leads within a single target company and pay only for those whom they are able to move to the next stage of the funnel. Publishers are able to do this through subscriber lists and cookie-based targeting. But the tactic has made trade associations a newly attractive option for smart marketers.

By using the membership rolls of these not-for-profit companies, marketers are often able to target larger pools of leads within target accounts and reach an audience of willing listeners.

It’s an experience, not an ad

Making this work requires marketing products that can pick up a stronger signal from the seller, getting them to commit actions that move them deeper down the funnel and closer to the sale. Nothing does this better than asking a prospect to give of their time by engaging with the marketer.

Videos, webinars and live events engage a prospect’s attention while they learn more about a company’s product and the category, before bringing them to a conversion opportunity that will signal strong demand. A user who attends a six-hour virtual trade show, then signs up for a demo or follow-up, is a likely buyer.

The most exciting opportunity here isn’t in any single product but in the custom-packages platforms, where publishers and organizations are able to develop specific-action end goals, like how many strong marketing-qualified leads they can turn over at the end of a prolonged campaign.

Impressions still matter

In a way, this move to specific action marketing is a return to a bit of the analog. The process of developing custom packages is a manual process, and conducting a virtual trade show requires humans to do a lot of talking in front of cameras. But it starts with digital, and it runs on digital.

We don’t have customers to attend to enter the funnel unless we captured them somewhere along the digital journey. As they continue through the funnel, consuming content, engaging and giving their time, it’s analytics that will guide marketers on which customers to target.

There will always be a place in marketing for top-of-funnel metrics like circulation and impressions, and it is unfair to call those vanity metrics. Impressions matter, but they are the means—not the end.