Sorry, I Don’t Do Impressions: Metrics Under the Microscope

In my past life as a Los Angeles stand-up comic, I was always envious of comedians who could do good impressions of celebrities and public figures. I was never any good at masking my voice, which became evident at an early age when I would fail attempts to prank call my friends. However, as I spent more time around the comedy scene, I learned that impressionists were not always held in high regard as many saw it as a cheap way to get laughs. Take a look at the casts of Saturday Night Live and you’ll notice there always seems to be one person who is really good at impressions…and they’re also really good at not appearing in any other movies or television shows. When it comes to comedy, impressions fall under short-term engagement with the audience and don’t have much staying power.

These days, I stand face-to-face with impressions of a different kind. As a community manager working in alumni affairs, I grapple with Facebook and Twitter impressions on a daily basis, and while the venue is very different, the evolution of how I look at them isn’t much different from the world of comedy. Facebook defines impressions as:

“[T]he number of times a post from your page is displayed, whether the post is clicked on or not. People may see multiple impressions of the same post.”

Back in January, I started compiling a monthly social media report for our alumni networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Livestream) and quickly wore out my shoulder from patting myself on the back. According to Facebook, we had racked up more than 600,000 impressions! Break out the bubbly; this was SERIOUS engagement with our alums!

Now, it didn’t occur to me at first that the number of living Cornell alumni is only about 250,000 and that this number might be a little misleading. Unfortunately, as I continued to dig into our metrics, I discovered the harsh reality of impressions.

I came across the amount of post feedback we received and the number of stories created off of the posts. These numbers were far lower than the number of impressions, and I became suspicious of what impressions were really telling me about our engagement. I decided to compare these two numbers directly to the number of impressions our Facebook page compiled in the same month. Below, you’ll see the slide I constructed to demonstrate the percentage of our impressions that actually engaged with a post.

Facebook metrics slide

I’m not sure this is an absolute apples-to-apples comparison because none of these numbers represent unique users. However, I think it provides a general idea for how many of those 700,000 impressions really count as engaged users. You could build the same slide for a Twitter account by looking at your number of impressions, then comparing it to your number of replies and re-tweets.

Okay, that’s enough bad news. Let’s talk about the positive side: Even though I concluded that less than 1 percent of all impressions are actually engaging with our content, that’s still almost 10,000 stories and other pieces of feedback created within one month. That’s a solid total considering how many events you would have to put on in one month to interact in-person with 10,000 alums. Now again, this is not a unique number of engaged users, so it would most likely be less than 10,000, but I think you get the idea.

Like funny impersonators, impressions within social networks are not completely useless. Impressions do provide a general snapshot of how far your content is being spread. It is certainly worth tracking impressions from month to month to see what type of content results in your page/handle having a further reach. But when you really want to be honest with yourself and determine how much you have engaged your followers, look beyond the giant impressions number that Facebook hopes will entice you to spend some dough. We have to fight the temptation to take advantage of internal naïveté and report these falsely impressive stats.

Saturday Night Live alum Darrell Hammond is a funny guy. He set the record for the most character impressions (107) in the TV show’s history during his tenure from 1995-2009 (another record). Yet how many truly memorable Hammond sketches can you recall? Conversely, it probably takes fans little time to recall a classic Will Ferrell moment. Ferrell’s characters were original and complex while Hammond simply mimicked someone we already know. We can’t be content with a number just because it’s large if we want to boast about our engaged community. We have to dig deep into the actual interactions we’re having with our followers, find out what makes them tick and use that to map our strategy. The complex and original content that triggers sharing and feedback is what we need to concentrate on if we hope to become a household name to our followers.

Then again, maybe I’m just a bitter ex-comic who lacks the ability to change the pitch and tone of his voice…

One response to “Sorry, I Don’t Do Impressions: Metrics Under the Microscope

  1. Good stuff. I agree that impressions are not totally worthless, but they are only the beginning. Thanks for the clarity. The other piece of this is, of course, what do you do with the numbers?

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