Has ‘reach’ become a vanity metric in a fragmented media landscape?

It wasn’t too long ago when the concept of 'reach' was a relatively straightforward one: marketers could buy spots during popular TV programming and rest well knowing that millions of eyeballs would see their messaging.

But the increasingly fragmented media landscape - largely spurred by skyrocketing mobile usage and an abundance of new ways to consume content - has made 'reach' a trickier metric to rely on in recent years.

At an event hosted by The Drum earlier this year, Neil Shah, Diageo’s global senior brand manager for Smirnoff, referred to reach as a “vanity metric,” explaining that it provides no insight into whether or not consumers are “actually engaging with the ad” they’re being served.

In a recent interview with The Drum, Shah said that reach is only effective when paired with metrics that illustrate whether or not a particular advertisement prompted the consumer to engage or take some sort of action.

“Reach as a metric is really only powerful when coupled with metrics that tell you about actual impact of a brand’s message,” he said.

While Shah acknowledged that reach is “crucial to actually getting a brand message in front of people,” he said “impact metrics” are what help marketers understand if they are meeting a campaign’s specific objectives. For example, if the goal of the campaign is earned media, a marketer might look at how many people are sharing the message. Or if it’s purchase, they’d pay attention to who is clicking through to the e-commerce site from a link at the end of a digital message.

It's a view shared by Unilever-owned Lynx. At this year's Advertising Week Europe, the brand's global vice president for advertising Rik Strubel said Lynx is upping its content marketing budget and inking music-based partnerships with the likes of Boiler Room for the coming year in an effort to move away from simply trying to reach the masses with ads.

"In the past, we had a massive reach and got to a lot of people with what was great advertising for a while, but that's not the measure any more," he noted.

Even so, the very concept of reach takes on new meaning in today’s digitally-driven world, one where targeting tools and the advent of technology like addressable TV give advertisers more control over who their campaigns are reaching.

Eddie Revis, senior director of marketing communications at Chobani, said “digital is a place where reach takes on a whole new meaning” since it allows brands to target specific segments of consumers.

“TV reach is TV reach; you’re just reaching a mass audience,” Revis said. “Digital, though, is a great place for us to start to explore and understand how our targeted reach comes into play. We know that there are a lot of people out there that haven’t tried how delicious our Greek yogurt is, [or] they haven’t tried the yogurt category. They might have left the yogurt category. So reaching them is important to us.”

On social media, Revis said targeted each - and in particular viewability - is more important to him than whether or not someone interacted with an ad.

“I would consider reach more important when you think about paid media over engagement or a like. When I’m paying for social media, I want to reach the right audience with my message. If they leave a comment, great. If they don’t, it’s not the end of the world,” he said.

While the ability to use targeting within the context of reach has surely breathed new life into it, it’s still a metric that is difficult to measure in terms of effectiveness, hence why it is often grouped into the “vanity” category of advertising.

As Shah puts it, “no matter how many people you reach, if a brand message is ignored by the first thousand people who see it, it will be ignored by the next thousand people. In these scenarios, large reach numbers may make you feel good about your brand’s expenditure – but it won’t grow your brand.”

Yet reach is a necessary first step for brands who need to get the word out about their products. Todd Alchin, chief creative strategist at creative media agency Noble People, said that despite being a “superficial metric in itself,” reach continues to play a vital role in marketing since it determines how many people have the potential to be exposed to a brand’s messaging in the first place.

“It’s in vogue to push against reach because it feels like a metric that’s been dragged through time,” said Alchin.

“To say that reach isn’t important is quite a silly and dangerous thing to put out there, because it’s like saying that scale for a brand is not important. When I hear reach, I think of scale. And I think scale is fundamental to the success of any brand.”

At any rate, Alchin thinks that media metrics like reach - along with others like impressions and engagement - aren’t what marketers are ultimately concerned with at the end of the day, be they vanity or not. According to Alchin, metrics that illustrate business growth (or lack thereof) are the ones marketers are most concerned with.

“Clients only care about the business metrics,” Alchin said. “They suffer through agencies’ persistence in only really being concerned with media metrics. Reach is a media metric; market share and penetration are business metrics. They’re the only ones that really matter.”

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