Do We Really Know What CPM Stands For?

We all know CPM stands for “cost per thousand.” And you might think it’s “cost per thousand impressions.” Nope. It’s just “cost per thousand.” And it’s sort of fitting that it doesn’t actually imply a cost per thousand of what. You don’t know what the hell it is, because you don’t know what the hell you’re getting. Even if you are talking about impressions.

It would do us some good to crack open the dictionary once in a while. Because, as it turns out, what you are getting is not necessarily an actual, genuine impression if we go by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. There, “impression” is defined as “the effect or influence that something or someone has on a person's thoughts or feelings.” Think about other uses of the word: an impression your foot leaves when you’re walking in sand, for example. In just about every context, we’re talking about things that are noticeable, things that require interaction (your foot’s not going to leave that footprint unless you actually step in the sand, after all), and things that leave a real mark.



With all the talk we’ve had about ad viewability lately, let’s just go over the way we regard an “impression” right now, even with improved standards: An “impression” means someone could have seen at least half of an ad for one second. That’s barely enough time to make an “impression” in the Merriam-Webster sense, and the definition is still vague enough to pull in a whole lot of junk “impressions” that are wasting advertisers’ dollars and not providing any engaging value to consumers. And though I know the IAB and MRC have more than the best of intentions, if there are shady people in our industry (and there are, unfortunately) they’ll try to cut every corner possible.

So in reality, when you talk about “impression” in the CPM sense, you are actually getting a potential impression. Especially on a page that’s been juiced full of ads to maximize revenue because click-through rates have declined so much. It’s effectively a total gamble as to whether the true “impression” is being made. Our industry has actually warped the definition of “impression” from something that indicates a real, transactional experience to something that means maybe the chance of something legit.

Let’s do a little nostalgia trip here. Remember, back in the MySpace era, those “Punch The Monkey” ads in which some really obnoxious visuals goaded you into clicking around until you had clicked on a monkey’s face with a mouse cursor shaped like a boxing glove? You probably do, and even though you probably have absolutely no recollection of what they were advertising (I don’t either), the ads sure made a real “impression.” And frankly, that means that those “Punch the Monkey” ads achieved something that a lot of our digital ads don’t.

Remembering what “impression” really means can help us all. Yes, it’s important that we boil things down to numbers -- we’ve got to hold ourselves accountable. But in its truest and most effective form, an “impression” isn’t a check mark in a box delineating that something happened but you’re not quite sure whether that something will actually lead to your goal as an advertiser.

An impression should mean an engaged consumer. Let’s remember that -- and then maybe consumers will remember more of our ads.

4 comments about "Do We Really Know What CPM Stands For? ".
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  1. Rick Ramos from Rick Ramos Consulting, July 10, 2014 at 12:12 p.m.

    The "Punch the Monkey" ads were for, a comScore top 50 web property in the late 90's that was owned by

  2. Carl Ludewig from Ludewig Multimedia, Inc., July 10, 2014 at 1:21 p.m.

    Reminds of the time we bought "impressions" on a mobile site that placed our banner at the bottom of verrrrrry tall page. I doubt anyone ever that ad.

  3. David Cooperstein from Figurr, July 10, 2014 at 3:45 p.m.

    Wouldn't that then be sold as "cost per 1000 engagements"?

  4. Matthew Ford from SwipeAds, July 10, 2014 at 8:22 p.m.

    Hi again Joe! You write a lot of the articles I notice and comment on. :) I think you'd be quite interested in what's happening with FunCaptcha. It guarantees real engagement with an ad-- always viewable, never a bot, always several seconds engaged. Check out (That site does not sell the ad piece up front, but you can see where the ad brand replaces the "Fun" logo and banner).

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