Another Session

First, let me clear something up about last week’s piece on the new “surround session” unit being offered by The New York Times online edition. A well-placed member of The New York Times online sales staff pointed out to me that it seemed like I was saying that the idea for the “surround session” was derivative.

My article, indeed, speculated about where the idea of The New York Times’s surround sessions may have come from. It is true that Rex Briggs introduced the idea of surround-sound marketing into the vernacular of the digital media space; it’s also true that session-based media currency was being discussed in the digital media industry at least two years before The New York Times introduced this kind of inventory. The concept had been floated at conferences and panels for quite a while; I don’t think that is in dispute.

The point of the piece wasn’t necessarily to point out who was “patient zero” for the idea, but rather to make the point that after a time of talking about it, someone was finally doing it. The debate of who originated the idea is similar to the debate about whether Leibniz or Newton developed calculus first. It is likely that they each developed it independently, as is the case here. When many smart people think about an issue, it makes sense that different folks will come up with the same or similar ideas about how to address it. No surprise. It’s good, really.

I congratulate The New York Times for moving forward with this concept and taking it from theory to praxis. I think it is good for the industry and even better that this is being moved forward by a brand as strong as The New York Times.

But now we have to determine just what we’re talking about when we talk about a session. Figuring out how many impressions make up a session is like the stagecoach industry planning for air travel. Though it is a useful exercise to look at impressions when talking about sessions, it is only useful in the way that using different-sized balls to build a model of the solar system is useful: for purposes of conceptualization.

A session, technically, is a unit of time a user spends on a site, whether it is 1 minute or 10 minutes. Looking at sessions in terms of impressions is applying a new definition to an old word. Until now, a session has never meant anything more than the time between a visitor arrival entry and visitor exit entry in a server log.

To try to give a new definition to an old term by using another term (which itself is poorly defined in the digital media space) is probably not the best idea. After all, the online media industry has already fouled the meanings of plenty of words that have been well defined and were in common use in the traditional media space — “impression” and “reach” being the ones that were the most ubiquitous and incorrectly used.

People tend to want to define one term in terms of another — such as a session equals x number of impressions, a foot equals 12 inches, and so on. This tendency is, I believe, a mistake. If a session comes to be merely an aggregate receptacle for buying impressions, then it won’t really be new media currency. Instead, it will be new packaging for old currency, that is, the impression.

The print model has been suggested as a source for pricing ideas, and it could give us some ideas of what could or should be the new currency for online media units. Of course, print media is not perfectly analogous to digital media, but understanding something about print might be helpful in our debate.

When a media planner buys print, she is not paying for media based on the number of impressions a run of book might yield. Sure, the planner will take into account cume audience based on readers per copy (RPC) and, thus, potential cume impressions, but the book is bought for the audience it represents demographically and psychographically.

The buyer may consider efficiencies in terms of total potential cume audience, but the publisher prices the book against a rate base — that is, a guaranteed circulation. If People magazine reps had to sell every impression the pub might generate from people picking it up off the coffee table, perusing it in a doctor’s office, or flipping through it while sitting on the can, they’d have to be selling 24/7 and would still have inventory left over.

If publishers could find a way to float an ad on a page of content through the duration of a user’s stay on that page, they could sell “audience.” While I’m reading the latest Camille Paglia rant on Salon.com, the first page of the article might have one advertiser floating on the page the whole time (perhaps something like a frame or one of those perennial tiles that always remain on the right or left side of the page). Then, when I turn to page two, another advertiser is there — just like in a magazine. The only difference is that I can respond to that advertisement right then and there. Or not.

Whether we call them sessions doesn’t really matter. The whole deconstructive exercise is dizzying. But meaningful media currencies representative of humans, not server log entries and page views, are going to be the way to go.

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