Your brand has something important to say. So important, in fact, that you’ve probably spent time, effort and money crafting well-researched, carefully worded, visually appealing content to say it in just the right way.
And, that’s great.
Now, how will you get people to listen?
Social media marketing and online advertising are the podiums for your messaging. Without them, there’s no guarantee your brand’s content will find the right audience – or any audience at all.
You need promotion and distribution platforms to earn impressions, improve the reach of your content, drive engagement and ultimately shepherd leads into your sales funnel.
What Does ‘Impression’ Mean?
In the world of social media marketing, online advertising and search engine marketing, impression is a measure of how many times your paid or organic (meaning not paid) content has been displayed in front of an online audience. Here’s an example:
View this post on Instagram
If you clicked on the above Instagram post, then it just earned an impression because it’s been displayed in front of you. Why’s that important? Because it gets your brand in potential consumers’ faces. And, in a digital world dominated by advertising, you need to ensure you’re remembered by current and would-be customers alike.
You can create and curate all the social media content you want, but impressions, reach, engagement and views are what count when it comes to measuring whether your social media campaign is at all successful.
Impressions vs Reach
Reach is the total number of unique users who see your content. You might also hear this referred to as “unique impressions.”
Think of it like this: If impressions count the number of times your content is displayed, reach tallies the number of people who see that content.
One person can see the same content displayed on 2 different occasions – that’s a reach of 1, with 2 impressions.
So, if you were to click on the Instagram post about seals twice, it would count as a multiple impression because it gets displayed more than once.
However, the reach doesn’t change, because you’re still the same user.
Reach rate is the number of people who have seen your post divided by the number of your followers.
Impressions vs Engagement
Social media engagement most often refers to any share, like or comment.
Here’s an example from Nihilist Arby’s Twitter account:
There are more people alive now than have ever died since humanity began which means that when you die you’ll be even more lonely, because there is no afterlife and you’ll just shut off like a shitty broken computer and bask in a solitudinal blackness for eternity
— Nihilist Arby’s (@nihilist_arbys) August 16, 2019
See how there are thousands of recorded likes? All of those are engagements. So are the comments and retweets.
As a general rule, expect your number of social media impressions to be greater than your number of unique users (reach). That’s because one person can see the same post more than one time.
Likewise, reach tends to be higher than engagement. Not every person who sees your content is necessarily going to like it, share it or comment on it.
Also, note that “engagement” and “engagement rate” are two different things.
Engagement is a hard number quantifying likes, shares and comments. Engagement rate can tell you the number of engagements relative to your reach – or it can refer to the number of total engagements relative to your number of impressions. More simply, it answers 1 of 2 questions:
- How many engagements do you get per X number of unique users?
- How many engagements do you get per X number of impressions?
Impressions vs Views
Now, these may sound pretty much the same, but they’re actually quite different. A site counts a view when a user has clicked on the post put in front of them, taking them to the actual page behind the post, rather than hanging around on their feed.
Impressions vs Frequency
While impressions refer to the number of times a post was seen or an ad was served, frequency is the amount of times that post or ad was viewed by the same unique user. For example, an ad may have 6 impressions due to it being seen 4 times by 1 user and twice by another. This is where unique user numbers enter the equation.
Where Do Clicks Fit In?
Clicks are the number of, well, clicks (touches, if you’re using a smartphone). Users might click on an ad or a link in one of your posts.
When clicks are measured against impressions, you get a ratio called click-through rate (CTR).
Just like engagement rate, calculating CTR is a simple matter of dividing the total number of impressions by the total number of clicks.
Think of each clickable impression as an opportunity to click. CTR tells you what percent of those opportunities you’ve converted.
A Facebook ad is an example of a paid clickable impression:
A link to your most recent blog post is an example of an organic clickable impression:
So How Important Are Clicks on Social Media?
It really depends on your social media strategy.
If you’re posting links to blog posts, articles and videos on your company’s Facebook page, knowing the CTR of those links could be pretty darn important. It’s a way besides engagements to know if your target audience is actually interested in the content you’re sharing.
Other examples of clickable organic content include pictures on Instagram, expanded views of tweets and unpaid links in search engine results pages (SERPs).
(More on SERPs later in this post.)
Important Definitions at a Glance
- Impression: Number of times a post has been displayed.
- Reach: Number of unique users who have seen your post.
- Reach rate: Number of people who have seen your posts divided by your number of followers.
- Engagement: Number of likes, shares, comments and clicks.
- Engagement rate: Number of engagements divided by the number of unique users; or number of engagements divided by the number of impressions.
- Click-through-rate: Number of clicks divided by the number of impressions.
How Do Social Media Followers Enter the Equation?
Followers are important for improving impression, engagement and reach, which in turn, boosts followers.
Let’s unpack this.
Someone who has chosen to follow your brand on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn or some other social media platform is more likely (although not guaranteed) to see a social media post from you in a news feed, and this boosts potential impressions.
More impressions on a more reliable basis improve the odds of engagement such as likes and shares (assuming you’re sharing the right content – which again, CTR can clue you into).
And, with more engagement comes the opportunity for more reach. If one of your followers retweets your content, their followers may see that activity in their news feed.
Finally, greater reach means exposure to more potential followers.
The Positive-reinforcement Cycle
What we’ve just described above is sometimes called the “positive-reinforcement cycle.”
The most beautiful thing about it is that it works just as well in reverse: Followers extend reach to users on their network by engaging with your content, which improves overall impressions and, in turn, creates more followers.
Social media marketing is a most elegant machine when you get it just right.
Impression, Reach and Engagement by Channel
From a bird’s-eye view, there are 3 main types of impressions that apply to most digital marketing channels:
- Organic: Number of times your non-paid content is displayed.
- Paid: Number of times your paid content (ads) is displayed.
- Viral: Number of times your content is displayed as a result of engagements.
But, to give you a more concrete sense of social media metrics, let’s walk through examples of impression, reach and engagement on some of the most popular web channels.
Organic impressions on LinkedIn refers to the number of times unpaid content is shown to members.
This could include simple text posts, videos, company announcements and links to blog posts on your website (more on types of LinkedIn content, here).
Even though the above post has been displayed before you, it technically does not count as an impression on the platform for analytics purposes – unless of course, you click on it and view the post as a member.
Still, embeds such as the one above are always good for generating traffic and can indirectly lead to impressions, improved reach, engagements and, ultimately, better brand awareness.
Paid impressions, or ad impressions, on LinkedIn refers to the number of times sponsored posts are displayed for members.
Reach and Engagement
The reach of your post would be the number of unique users who saw it – organic or paid. Engagement on LinkedIn is fairly straightforward: Clicks, likes, comments and shares all count. That includes clicks on your company logo, on your “visit website” button and on all other clickable content.
Just like LinkedIn, you earn Facebook impressions every time your paid or organic content is displayed before a user.
Again, one user can be accountable for multiple impressions. Case in point:
In the example above, you might see the same post on the Facebook News Feed once when the publisher pushed it live, and again when your friends (Chris and Tommy) share it.
Reach and Engagement
Facebook reach is all about the number of users who see your post. Those users could be followers scrolling through their newsfeed, or they could be friends of your followers – for instance, if your followers like or share something you’ve published, their friends will see that on their newsfeed.
Engagement on Facebook includes likes, shares, comments and clicks – whether they result from followers or friends of followers who see your posts second-hand on their newsfeed.
You earn “clicks” on Facebook when a user does any of the following:
- Opens a link you’ve shared on your News Feed.
- Clicks on a photo or video for an expanded or full-screen view.
- Clicks on a paid ad or a boosted post.
- Clicks to your Facebook Page.
- Clicks on any links posted on your Facebook Page (like to your Instagram account).
- Likes, comments or shares (yes, Facebook also counts these as clicks).
On Twitter, an impression refers to any time your tweets (promoted or organic) are viewed, either on a timeline or in a search. An embedded tweet doesn’t count as an impression unless someone were to click on it.
But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. pic.twitter.com/BEpCS9MTsc
— t o a s t (@DauntingToaster) May 11, 2019
Twitter analytics can help you measure your tweets’ performance.
Reach and Engagement
Reach on Twitter is the same as it is everywhere else – a count of how many unique users see your post.
Just like with impressions, that does not include embedded tweets. A user has to see the post in the platform in order to count toward reach.
Engagement is any like, Retweet or reply. Clicks, such as the following, also count:
- Detail expands.
- Link clicks.
- Profile clicks.
Instagram impressions are the total number of times your posts (sponsored and organic), stories or profile have been seen. As with LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, embeds don’t count (unless, of course, you click on them).
Instagram insights is a great analytics tool that allows you to measure your Instagram content’s performance.
Reach and Engagement
Again, Instagram reach is the same as it is on Facebook – the number of unique users who see your content.
Engagement includes all of the following:
- Story replies.
- Profiles clicks.
Similar to most social media impressions, a TikTok impression is counted every time your video is shown to a viewer by popping up on their Following or For You page (FYP), either due to sponsorship or the app’s algorithm.
An impression is counted when a user sees your video but keeps scrolling without stopping to watch the video in full. A view, by contrast, occurs when someone has taken the time to watch the entire video (or, at least, a statistically significant part of it).
Reach and Engagement
A TikTok ad’s or post’s reach is determined by the number of unique people who see it, not the number of times the same person has seen the same post. One person could see the video 6 times, but the reach would still count only as one.
Pinterest is an interesting social media platform because it resembles more of a curated mood board or a journal than an interactive site. That said, its analytics function in much the same way as other platforms.
A Pinterest impression is when someone else sees one of your pins (something you’ve pinned to a gallery on your profile), ads in their feed or search results (alternatively, went to your profile for a quick stalk).
Reach and Engagement
Pinterest reach is important for business marketing on Pinterest.
As with other platforms, reach is calculated by how many people saw your pin or ad, not how many times it was seen. Engagement can be determined by measuring how many times your ads or pins were clicked or saved.
Search Console and Google Ads
Like social media, your content’s performance on search is critical to how many people will actually see it.
Google Search Console (including Google Analytics) lets you monitor and maintain your website’s organic presence on search.
Google Ads (formerly AdWords) lets you launch, monitor and maintain your paid search campaigns.
When we say organic search, we just mean any unpaid link that comes up in SERPs (search engine results pages) – so, not an ad.
These are organic SERP listings for the keyword “Pangolins:”
This is a paid SERP listing for “Pangolins:”
In the world of search, impressions are the number of times a user sees a link to one of your webpages in Google search results.
A paid Google ad impression is the same, but it refers specifically to the number of pay-per-click ads that display in search results.
Reach and Engagement
When it comes to search, reach is a tougher nut to crack. Private browsers and users who aren’t signed into their Google accounts can obscure the true number of unique users who see links to your webpages on search results.
Regarding engagement, there’s really only one metric, and that’s CTR.
On Google, CTR is just the click count divided by the impression count. Average CTR is largely determined by position on a SERP. The site that takes the No.1 spot will get more clicks than the No.7 site.
So how do you rank higher in search results?
That’s kind of what the whole SEO thing is all about.
How To Earn More Impressions
On search, earning more impressions is predominantly about SEO.
On social media, you’ll need more followers and greater engagement.
Either way, you need high-quality content for your marketing campaign.
By that, we mean content that’s created to answer your target audience’s questions, and optimized for complete visibility to search crawlers.
Once you have your content, you’ll need to promote it. You can do that through online ad campaigns, SEO efforts and by being really active on social media. As part of your marketing strategy, you must follow brands and engage users. Keep posting great content. Share posts from other brands that you like. Encourage user-generated content.
Be social. Keep at it. And impressions will follow.
Now go and impress some followers.
Editor’s Note: Updated April 2023.