'Potential Reach' Is More Than Potentially Misleading

I was recently on a panel discussing online video advertising, and a fellow panelist proclaimed "reach is not a problem for us, as we reach 115 million people according to comScore."  This statement is factually incorrect. 

To accurately reflect his company's reach, the panelist should have said, "We can potentially reach 115 million people." According to comScore's methodology, in order reach those 115 million people, the network would have to buy every ad impression on every publisher they work with. Furthermore, only those publishers with more than 2% reach are verified to have an actual business relationship with the network.

(full disclosure -- comScore began measuring my company on both actual reach and potential in April, 2009)

As with most misleading metrics, potential reach was likely created to help sell something. ComScore wanted to sell large annual subscriptions to video ad networks and video ad networks wanted a big reach number to sell advertising and compete effectively against the large display ad networks. The metric has fundamentally served its purpose - all video networks are paying customers and many video networks' actual reach is large enough to compete with the large display networks -- and as such, it is time to put this metric to rest.

Nearly every video publisher, network, blogger and journalist I talk to believes this metric is misleading. But, even more than the confusion it causes, I believe the potential reach metric is hurting all players in the video business for the following reasons:

1.    "Potential reach" provides no meaningful representation of reach, access to inventory or actual business traction.  In fact, if the same methodology were applied to other sectors, any (paying) company has the potential to reach 100 million+ users in email, display, outdoor, television and radio.  All that is required to achieve this "potential reach" validation from the most trusted name in measurement is to provide a list of properties a network "works with" -- literally, that's it.

2.    "Potential reach" is confusing advertisers, agencies, clients and the press.  Yes, the people who buy video advertising do not understand the metric and don't understand the difference between potential reach and actual reach.  Why?  Because vendors use the inflated potential reach numbers as a sales tool.  This inventory Ponzi scheme is a failed strategy. Eventually, it will be uncovered, but not before all industry players have been negatively impacted.

3.     "Potential reach" is tarnishing the brand of the leading Internet measurement company.  ComScore is clearly in the forefront of video measurement, and it's in a position to champion accurate measurement.  Only two other measurement alternatives exist -- Nielsen or Quantcast.  Nielsen has yet to commit to the online video category, which resulted in an incomplete solution, and Quantcast is now selling data collected from our ads to our competitors.  We need to have faith in comScore's measurement, as this ongoing issue of potential reach is beginning to break trust with key industry constituents.

4.    "Potential reach" is hurting the video companies that are doing well.  The metric blurs the distinction between the video companies that are doing well (those with large actual reach) and the companies that are new, small or faltering (those with minimal actual reach). This results in buyers failing to understand differentiation in the market. We are a nascent category and we should be promoting our success stories, not clouding them in confusion. 

Fundamentally, we deserve better measurement solutions in our industry and we must protect the collective, long-term trust within the agency and advertiser communities. Sacrificing long-term value for short-term profits may seem attractive if you are trying to hit your quarterly goal. However, I suggest we all travel a few blocks -- from Madison Avenue to Wall Street-- so we can remind ourselves of the brand damage that be done when we mislead key customers under the guise of short-term or quarterly planning.

8 comments about "'Potential Reach' Is More Than Potentially Misleading".
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  1. Mike Einstein from the Brothers Einstein, October 5, 2009 at 12:23 p.m.

    The only iron-clad evidence of reach online is the click through. That's why so many online agencies have "click" in their names. They wanted to associate with the Internet's USP, its inherent promise of accountability. But now that average CTRs have reached virtual statistical zero (less than .1% according to comScore), these same agencies are backpeddling with soft metrics like brand lift and attribution, all of which imply reach, but none of which (because they can't) pin it down.

    Whenever a media franchise claims to "reach" millions of consumers, take caution, because more likely than not, it is they they who are doing the reaching.

  2. Richard Monihan, October 5, 2009 at 12:36 p.m.

    "Potential Reach" is all that ANY online publisher has. If my website is listed by ComScore as "reaching" 15mm unique users, that is ONLY POTENTIAL reach. It doesn't mean that every advertiser will benefit from this reach.


    Because ads online are delivered individually, unlike TV, which delivers ads via a mass burst. If a TV show gets 15mm viewers, it's very likely the advertisers in that show will reach 15mm viewers.

    On the other hand, an advertiser on my video section MAY NOT reach 15mm viewers. This seems like a common sense statement to people in the online industry, but to those outside, it remains confusing.

    The basic assumption of reach, of course, is that by purchasing 100mm video impressions, I SHOULD hit all 15mm potential uniques. In fact, this is unlikely unless I utilize some kind of limit to the number of times a potential visitor can see my ad. Typically, my site uses 3X per 24 hours. But since uniques are delivered over a month long period, using this to assure I reach all 15mm uniques would be imprudent. I could have someone who visits my site 4 times a week, thus getting 48 of my advertisers' ads served to them during the course of a month. Nor would limiting the ads to 7X per month be useful because unless all 15mm unique visitors come to the video section, then I will fall short of my impression goal. More importantly, 7X per month is an extremely weak message delivery method for those who actually DO see the ads.

    As a result, the only way advertisers should be looking at online video is as an enhancement of reach which they have already GOTTEN on TV. Finding the right environment to reach specific audiences, providing content/demographic specific messages to very well defined audiences.
    OR, more likely, to gain an advantage in frequency and recency - very beneficial tools in the "purchase now" aspect of advertising.

    I have never enjoyed the response (very frequent with small sites like mine) "we left you off the buy because we're buying reach". I dislike it not because I didn't get the money, I dislike it because it's a poor use of the medium. Reach is not a pure online tool the way it is on TV. It is an enhancement of the TV tool - it is the tack hammer as opposed to the sledgehammer. Equally useful, but not for achieving similar objectives.

    Purchasing reach online is something that can be done, but carries a cost. And part of that cost will coincide with massive lost opportunity.

  3. Bob Sacco from Travel Ad Network/Travora Media, October 5, 2009 at 12:49 p.m.

    We found only two ways around this problem.

    1) Either you own the property and the media you are selling


    2) You are the EXCLUSIVE ad rep firm that sells the media and functions as the sales force for the publisher under contract

    Efforts to blur the reality outside of the two options above only dilute your credibility among media buyers and your industry peers as Tod mentions in the article. There are no shortcuts. In fact, these disintermediating efforts can obscure any unique value/selling proposition your company may provide as you lean on questionable measurement analytics. This is a sure-fire way to blow up your brand equity in the marketplace.

    As a veteran online marketer, I can tell you that any company using questionable reach methods does not pass the smell-test and goes directly into a 2nd or worst-yet 3rd- tier bucket in terms of mind-share.

    -bob sacco
    co-founder of Travel Ad Network,

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, October 5, 2009 at 2:19 p.m.

    When cable was first being sold, buyers were only given the number of households that received cable. Increased and improved programming, marketing/definition and technology changed the game. No click throughs. No absolutes. Yes, gauges. After a 3 month flight, did more product sell and which of the creativity, product quality, season, economic factors and spot buying with variations thereof helped or didn't? Hello video !

  5. MediaMark Walker, October 14, 2009 at 11:54 a.m.

    Same goes for "impressions".

    Impressions don't buy products, impressions don't park cars on my parking lot, impressions don't mean a damned thing! Let's quit taking this crap from media sellers and DEMAND that they run in a CPC world at the very least. Or better yet, let's hold them accountable for ROI.

    This is the 21st century folks and advertisers are the key to media company survival. Demand what you want- or don't but the crap they are offering. You CAN get what you want elsewhere! (Newspaper reps- did you see this?!)

  6. Edward Hunter from Loop Analytics, October 14, 2009 at 6:41 p.m.

    I don't disagree that the only iron-clad evidence of reach online is click through, but I'd counter that behavioral and attitudinal impacts are perhaps better outcome metrics in the long run.
    As click through rates continue to fall dramatically year over year, companies with 'click' in their name are quickly finding themselves in possession of an outdated theme in digital ROI.

    By taking groups of exposed & unexposed consumers and examining their digital behaviors (e.g. reach to brand site, reach to brand search), view through impact can easily be established.

    Attitudinal brand lift studies can, depending on target demographic, provide limited views of campaign efficacy, but behavioral impacts on consumer behaviors don't.

    Panel based measurement companies can accomplish this type of research fairly easily. In the case of very large campaigns, links to online and offline purchasing can now be established by at least some research firms.

    In an age where presumably 8% of consumers generate 80% of clicks - it would seem prudent to move away from the click as the measure of digital campaign ROI as soon as possible.

    I haven't clicked in months and months. Has anyone?

  7. Nick Thomas, December 1, 2010 at 5:11 a.m.

    Sometimes we mislead while experimenting exceptional words while delivering it and lead to a wrong meaning.
    That's the problem actually.
    Expression over the limit leads to Overreacting :)

    -------- -------------------------------------------------
    feel free to visit

  8. Shrivcom Media from Software Development, April 20, 2012 at 6:47 a.m.

    "Potential reach" not clarify to any customer appropriate CTR, however we can expect more as an internet user may reach through any words as keywords.

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