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How Do Digital Impressions Differ Between Targeted Ads & SEM?

Impressions or ad views are a primary metric across all marketing. An impression is basically when a user sees an advertisementIn practice, an impression appears anytime an app is opened or a website page loads. The metric represents the opportunity to influence, or make an impression on, a potential customer. This standard measure is not action-based but depending on the digital solution one of those “impressions” can have more impact at times than the other. 

Digital marketing opens up new opportunities for business owners to reach people more likely to be interested in their offerings. It also gives them a more granular way to measure the performance of marketing campaigns over older non-digital methods like billboard ads. However, digital marketing is a broad field. Marketers and business owners must understand its distinctions to derive the most benefit. 

The Nuances of Digital Marketing

Any marketing campaign catered to using a computer, tablet, smartphone, or other device is considered a digital marketing campaign. Common examples include paid social ads, search engine marketing, social media posts, targeted display or video ads and OTT.  Targeted ads are served to a specific demographic and rely upon websites. SEM, a form of paid search marketing, is displayed on search engine results pages based on the search query. However, a display or video ad is appearing through a programmatic buy and that impression can appear across the world wide web, depending on the targeting.

Where Impressions Fit 

An impression occurs when an ad appears on a user's screen. Links or ads may show up via a website, social media page, or search engine results page. In its broadest definition, any ad that can be read or heard on a user's device counts as an impression. Impression tracking is a common way to measure how an online marketing campaign performs by calculating the baseline of views in an ad as an indicator of brand awareness.

Not all impressions are equal when it comes to the different types of solutions you are using. Impressions only indicate that your ad appeared when a page or an app loads. The user does not have to engage with the ad for the impression to count.  Let’s take a look at the difference between a Targeted Display or Video impression vs an SEM impression.  

Targeted Digital Ads 

A targeted ad is served to a specific online audience usually based on some very specific targeting. They may display after a consumer has done a search for tools and then a Craftsman ad appears somewhere on their path in the next 30 days. Targeted digital impressions indicate how many times the page where your display ad or video appears is loaded. The key to branding is that you need enough impressions to reach a consistent frequency to keep your brand top of mind to that consumer

Multiple tactics comprise a targeted ad campaign, including:

  • Category contextual retargeting 
  • Search retargeting 
  • Geofencing 
  • Keyword search and contextual retargeting 
  • Site retargeting


Search engine marketing is the practice of marketing a business, through paid advertising, so it shows up on a search engine results page. SEM impressions show how many consumers are searching based on the budget and geography you are using for the campaign. You can't control total impressions like in display advertising, so, impressions are affected by the number of people in the market during a given period.

So even though you can’t control how many consumers are searching for a product or a service at any given time, you can use this metric to help guide your decision making when it comes to budget and optimization of a campaign. When you measure total impressions based on your current budget as well as your average CPC it can help you to see if you need to add more budget or scale back as well as looking at how often you want to show up for each of your keywords. The tool to help you do this is the overall impression share you are receiving. Taking a look at all of those metrics is going to give you the best ROI.

What Your Impressions Tell You 

Both types of impressions will tell you how many people your ads appeared for, but they differ in further implications. Targeted digital ads are part of branding and offer insight into your brand awareness. SEM is part of lead generation and will tell you about the number of people who will follow through to your website or blog posts or convert as customers. Measuring clicks and website view-throughs, where the consumer didn't click through the ad but visited the website within 30 days, gives maximum frequency. 

Digital Ads vs. SEM: Unique Roles That Deliver Specific Benefits

Impressions can give you a unique insight into your digital campaigns. All impressions are not equal. Just because the page loads and the ad delivers, it doesn't mean the consumer saw it. That means that you need to measure impressions in different ways. 

Digital marketing has many nuances. It can sometimes be confusing to understand which combinations of strategies and tactics are best to help you achieve your goals. It takes expertise and a high level of digital marketing experience to discern the subtle but significant differences. Work with an experienced digital partner to help you navigate these distinctions. 


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Angela Todd

Written by Angela Todd

Angela Todd is a Digital Marketing Consultant for Federated Digital Solutions. She has over 20 years in both sales and marketing. With experience in both the newspaper and radio industry, Angela found her passion working in digital marketing for the past few years. It was digital marketing where Angela finally felt like she wasn’t just a consultant to her clients, but a true partner and extension of their marketing team. Bringing her clients, a return on their marketing is what gets her out of bed every day.

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