PR measurement fumble

Photo credit: Keith Allison

The Washington Redskins maintained that 7,845,460,401 people read about their training camp in Richmond, VA., from July 24 to Aug. 12 last year. That’s more than the entire population of the world.  
How could that be? The number — initially claimed to be unique visitors — was actually impressions, representing the number of times all articles or social media mentions about the team’s training camp could have theoretically been seen.

Generates Negative Publicity

The tactic seems to have backfired and caused more negative publicity, as media pundits roundly disputed and mocked the 7.8 billion figure. “Apparently a lot of folks on Pluto were really interested in Colt McCoy’s progress,” remarked The Washington Post.

Other commentators tried to make sense of how the team’s PR consultants could have arrived at its numbers. The PR spokeswoman’s explanation about impressions convinced no one and seemed to only baffle commentators.

Here’s how they got the number. The team’s media monitoring service(s) multiplied the times a story appeared in media outlets or websites by the outlet’s number of visitors provided by comScore, explained PR measurement expert Katie Paine of Paine Publishing in a blog post. Using that formula, eight articles that appeared on, which gets 120 million unique visitors, would generate nearly a billion impressions (if all the unique visitors actually visited during the relatively brief time the story was posted on Yahoo!).

That measurement formula also reports over 300 million impressions for every post on Facebook or Twitter. With that flawed methodology, you get to 7.8 billion impressions pretty quickly. (We won’t even tell you which monitoring service provided the measurement reports, though some publications did.)

The Heart of the Issue

Here’s the crux of the matter. The number of “impressions” in online advertising is a reasonably accurate figure. The website knows how many individuals clicked on the link and which ads appeared. The website uses that number to issue invoices to advertisers on a cost/thousand billing model. (Since the billing rate is for people who visit the article, the news sources should eliminate visits by automated search engines such as Google, but most websites don’t. The search engine robots account for a surprisingly high percentage of website visits.)

“Impressions” have no validity as a measurement of editorial content. The numbers from website measurement services like comScore, Compete and Alexa are for the number of visitors to the entire site – not to an individual page. Only a tiny fraction of the visitors to a major news site such as Yahoo, MSN or USA Today visit any given page or article.

The numbers supplied by media monitoring services are in no way “impressions” in the advertising sense. They are “opportunities to see” – the number of people who could possibly have seen the article. PR folks need to understand it’s absolutely, positively NOT the number of people who have read the article where their company or client was mentioned. (Incidentally, there are wide discrepancies in average number of visitors that the different site monitoring services report for websites.)

The news websites in fact have a reasonably accurate count of people who visit individual pages on the website – assuming they delete the visits by software robots from Google and other search engines. However, the news websites do not make those page counts public. So at the present time there’s no way to accurately know how many people actually read an online news article. In fact, there’s also no way to know how many people actually read a given article in any print publication either. The only figure available is the reported “circulation” – a figure that is similar to the reported “visitors” for an online publication.

Opportunities to See & Potential Impressions reports the visitor figures as “opportunities to see.” That seems to be the most accurate portrayal and labeling. Another accurate labeling would be “potential impressions.” It’s the number of people who visited the SITE and had an opportunity to see the ARTICLE. Those visitors may or may not have actually visited the page on which the article resides.

In all likelihood, the vast majority of visitors to the website did NOT read any given article. Only a small percentage of the total visitors read any given article – even the day’s lead articles. On the major news aggregation websites such as Yahoo! and MSN, most stories are featured on the home page and other news menus for only short periods of time – not the entire 24-hour period.

The inflated figures used by the Redskins and many others in PR underline the danger of reporting “impressions.”

“For one, they make PR people look stupid,” Paine said. “Secondly, they probably don’t do anything useful, third, they are misleading. If you need one more reason, people will make fun of you.”

If PR is to gain credibility in measurement, everyone in PR needs to become more precise in the use of measurement terminology and in reporting measurement figures. Reporting bad numbers – and even worse, inflating numbers — makes everyone look either dense or deceitful.

Bottom Line: The Washington Redskins’ claim that over 7.8 billion people – more than the entire world population — read about their training camp flies in the face of common sense and damages the credibly of PR measurement. The inflated figure assertion only serves to attract derision.