Baba Shetty & Adam Cahill – The Emergence of Choice-Based Impressions

Baba Shetty, Chief Strategy & Media Officer, Hill Holiday
Adam Cahill, EVP Experience Strategy, Hill Holiday

In 2020 we envision a world where consumers actively choose a significant portion of the commercial messages they’re exposed to. In this world, competitive advantage will accrue to those marketers who’ve developed the necessary skill and capabilities to generate at scale what we call “choice-based impressions”.

What’s a choice-based impression?

Let’s start by thinking about “standard impressions,” which represent the vast majority of advertising messages people are exposed to today.

Television ads interspersed throughout the shows we watch. Banners and video placements that sit adjacent to the content we consume on the web. Billboards we see on the drive to work.

These impressions can be, and often are, incredibly effective. People may be persuaded by them, may talk about them with friends, may even love them. But no one asked to see them before the fact. They are – initially at least – imposed upon the consumer.

Choice-based impressions, on the other hand, are created when people voluntarily engage with a unit of content.  These impressions don’t exist until someone does something: today it’s when someone searches on Google, reads a blog post from a brand on a topic of interest, shares a video with friends on Facebook, or selects one ad over another when presented an option on Hulu.

Choice-based impressions are fueled by the creation of content that maps to people’s needs and interests. Unlike the ephemeral nature of standard impressions, the content units that become choice-based impressions create long-lasting value because they are searchable and shareable in perpetuity.

Because choice-based impressions must be created (as opposed to purchased) they are fewer in number than standard impressions. But they have outsized impact.

In our own work with client brands we’ve found that choice-based impressions are dramatically more effective than standard impressions when trying to influence attitudes toward a brand.

From GRP to CBI: Why choice-based impressions matter

The past fifty years of media thinking have been organized around the mechanics of distribution, exemplified by the GRP (gross ratings point.  In 2020 it will be critical for brands to be just as systematic in their thinking about the mechanics of acceptance, exemplified by the CBI (choice-based impression).

That’s because the modern media landscape is characterized by media formats and consumer behaviors that are ill-suited to a reliance on interruption and borrowed interest, and by 2020 these trends will be even more pronounced.

Let’s look at three key evolutions that lead us to this conclusion:

The social filter

As Facebook’s Paul Adams says, “we’re moving away from a web that connects documents together to a web that connects people together.” In the re-architected web there will be a persistent, invisible filter over much (if not all) of what we see, and this “choice filter” will be determined by your interests, your friends, and your friend’s interests. This is most evident within the bounds of a social network, where the newsfeed is a de facto opt-in environment, but the impact of the social filter will be pervasive across the entire web. If a brand doesn’t have a choice-based rationale for finding it’s way into the fabric of the social filter, it won’t be seen.

The immediacy of mobile

By 2020 the mobile web will have long since surpassed the PC-based web, and it’s difficult to envision mobile as a format that will support long-form linear storytelling imposed on the user. Mobile is simply too immediate and tactile an experience to expect that people will patiently absorb commercial messages adjacent to desired content.

The continued erosion of scale

The GRP-centric approach has relied on the ability to predictably reach large audiences who have no control over the ads they see. But what will become more important is the way people access their entertainment content, and how this enables choice-based impressions. By 2020 it’s entirely possible – maybe even likely – that a significant amount of the content we now call television will be viewed a la carte and on-demand across myriad devices. And with each active selection that a person makes about the content they consume, there will be a corresponding choice about the advertising presented.

What these three themes portend is a 2020 in which the brand messages people see will be the ones they have either asked to see, or that penetrate their social filter based on their interests or the participation of their friends.

How can brands prepare for this future?

To realize the choice-based advantage brands need to think in new ways about what to make, how to gain acceptance, and how to measure effectiveness.

What to make

Adapting to world where scale depends not just on media budgets but on ideas that have velocity requires a philosophical adjustment. Instead of asking “what do we want to say with this content?” brands should begin by asking “why would someone choose to consume this content?”

“Content” is a key word, because choice-based impressions rely on a breadth of solutions, many of which don’t resemble what we’ve come to think of as ads.

To do: Determine the types of content your audience desires, and build the capability to create it (or find partners who can).

How to gain acceptance

Unlike a traditional ad campaign, effective use of content requires ongoing development, maintenance, and optimization. Borrowing from the principles of agile software development, content development will be an iterative model that combines planning, editorial, and distribution components designed to use metrics data, business goals, and cultural input to constantly improve the performance of our content programs.

To do: develop new routines that support iterative development.

How to measure effectiveness

To help make the transition from focusing on what is delivered (GRPs) to what is actually seen (CBIs) brands can use the Choice Ratio, calculated by dividing choice-based impressions by total impressions.

The Choice Ratio is a clear, simple way for brands to monitor their progress and predict their success. The higher the choice ratio in any given communications program, the higher the likelihood of a positive outcome.

To do: Use the Choice Ratio to benchmark recent and current programs. Determine which pieces of content are positively contributing to the ratio, and optimize accordingly.


Today’s media landscape is complex, and it’s a safe bet that it will only be more so in 2020. But we think there is an elegant, systematic way to approach the future. Channels, devices, and formats may proliferate, but when all is said and done brands can recognize that all advertising is either choice-based or it is imposed. And the more a brand’s ads are chosen, the more its products and services will be as well.