Traditional media circulation, reach, and impressions

Metric name Traditional media circulation, reach, and impressions

Note: These metrics will be integrated with metrics for social media currently under development by the end of 2012.

Standards area Traditional media measurement

Note: There will be a unified standard covering traditional, online, and social media channels before the end of 2012.

Metric description and application. The question that this metric answers. Circulation, impressions, and reach are three fundamental metrics for traditional media outputs. They answer the question of how many people may have been exposed to an item. They do not answer the question of how many people actually read or heard an item, nor do they measure impact on awareness, understanding, attitudes, or actions.

There are important differences among circulation, impressions, and reach.


Circulation is the “number of copies of a publication has distributed (as opposed to read)” (Michaelson and Stacks, 1st ed., 2010, p.88). In other words, circulation is the total number of copies distributed or the total number of ‘hard copies’ sold of a given edition of a publication over a specific period of time (as opposed to read). The total number of actual readers is not the circulation number due to nonreaders and/or pass-along readership.


Impressions are “the number of people who might have had the opportunity to be exposed to a story that has appeared in the media; [impressions are] also known as ‘opportunity to see’ (OTS)” (Michaelson and Stacks, 1st ed., 2010, p. 190).

Impressions do not equal awareness. Awareness needs to be measured using other research tools. Impressions are indicative of the opportunity to see (OTS). Consider OTS as an alternative nomenclature to better clarify what impressions really means – [the] potential to see/read.


Reach “refers to the scope or range of distribution and thus coverage that a given communication product has in a targeted audience group; broadcasting, the net unduplicated (also called “duplicated”) radio or TV audience for programs or commercials as measured for a specific time period” (Michaelson and Stacks, 1st ed., 2010, p. 88-89).

Status Interim Standard
Standard or guideline Standard
Metric type Output
Detailed description.

This is the actual standard, and must include full description of how to use this metrics

Print Media

Circulation should be based on audited figures available through a subscription service or from the publication itself. Circulation does not include pass-along readership or any form of multiplier.

Impressions are circulation plus pass-on readership. Impressions should be based on audited figures such as those provided by the publication, or through a subscription to tools such as Cision, MRI or Alliance for Audited Media (formerly Audit Bureau of Circulations) in North America; and audit bureaux of circulations in the UK, India, Australia, Hong Kong and elsewhere. In cases where audited figures are not available, reasoned estimated may be used. These estimates must be fully disclosed.

Note: Multipliers to account for the greater credibility of earned media coverage vs. paid media coverage should not be used under any circumstances (Weiner and Bartholomew, 2006; Michaelson and Stacks, 2007).

Broadcast television, cable television, and broadcast radio

Use the numbers provided by the broadcast monitoring service. In the U.S., these figures typically come from Nielsen. Again, be consistent. For example, a monitoring report for a single clip typically includes the following:

Time: 9:30am Aired On: NBC Show: Today (6/8) Estimated Audience Number: 5,358,181.

News wires (Dow Jones, Reuters, AP, etc.)

No circulation or impressions are assigned to wire stories themselves. Circulation and impressions are only to the stories that they generate in other media.


Source documents Don Stacks, ed. 2006. Dictionary of Public Relations Measurement. Institute for Public Relations: Gainesville, FL.

Don W. Stacks and David Michaelson. (2010). A Practitioner’s Guide to Public Relations Research, Measurement, and Evaluation, 1st edition. Business Experts Press LLC: New York, NY.  See Chapter 6: Content Analysis.

Mark Weiner and Don Bartholomew. (2006). “Dispelling the Myth of PR Multipliers and Other Inflationary Audience Measures.” Institute for Public Relations: Gainesville, FL. Available at:

Academic research supporting this standard. David Michaelson and Don W. Stacks. (2007). Exploring the Comparative Communications Effectiveness of Advertising and Media Placement. Institute for Public Relations, Gainesville, FL. Available at:

Validity and reliability of the standard. This should reference formal, preferably published, research demonstrating the validity and reliability of the metric, or, in the absence of such research, the kind of research that should be conducted.  
Team leads and contact information Marianne Eisenmann: Chandler Chicco, CPRF, AMEC, and IPR Measurement Commission

Version, date, and author Version 1.0

Last updated and reviewed by Marianne Eisenmann, Sarah Jackson and David Geddes on Nov. 15, 2012

PDF: Standards Traditional Media – Circulation Impressions Reach

Posted in [Research Library], 6. Traditional Media Measurement, Research Methods / Standards and tagged .

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