Getting Our Arms Around Sessions

Well, I finally met with Lincoln Millstein and his team at New York Times Digital to discuss the much-talked-about “surround sessions” opportunity. If you haven’t heard about surround sessions yet, you’ve been living under a rock (and you haven’t been reading articles by my comrades on ClickZ. Start with Tom Hespos‘s and Jim Meskauskas‘s first articles on the subject). I salute these folks for breathing new life into the way we buy and sell online media.

If you haven’t been keeping pace, here’s the quick overview. The New York Times announced this concept to the industry back in October. The idea is to offer a single advertiser an uncluttered area throughout the pages that a single user visits within a user session. To simplify, a site visitor only sees one advertiser throughout his visit. Advertising opportunities include banners, buttons, text links, and larger units, such as skyscrapers. Rich media can also be incorporated. An advertiser buys all (or the majority) of ads viewed in the session. The number of ads viewed in the session may vary by site or by the path taken by the visitor.

It’s funny, but trying to sort it out reminded me of learning algebra. I remember thinking the process was so much harder than it was. But when I figured it out, I was so shocked at how easy it was.

For example, a user lands on the business section of the NY Times home page. The session begins. On this page, the user sees 468 x 60 banners on the top and bottom of the page and a 140 x 800 skyscraper to the right of the page. She then selects an article to read within that section. The session continues. On this page, the user sees more banners on the top and bottom of the page as well as another skyscraper to the right of that page. She then selects another link within the article to read a related article. The session is still in progress. On this page, the user sees a large ad unit, such as a 336 x 280. The session continues until the user leaves the site.

NY Times Digital is going out on a limb to sell this concept. The company has established a minimum number of page views — five. If a user clicks on three pages, the impressions are considered to be “bonus,” or free. In addition, the company is offering Dynamic Logic branding studies at cost. Three advertisers have recently signed on.

The idea has so seized the imagination of buyers and sellers in the industry that the Online Publishers Association (OPA) recently held a buyer’s roundtable on the topic.

“Moving the industry from impression-based sales to audience-based sales is a step in the right direction for both publishers and advertisers and will help integrate online with traditional media for planning and buying purposes,” said Michael Zimbalist, acting executive director of OPA. “In addition, turning the ‘user session’ into a fundamental buying unit brings online measurement closer to the reach and frequency model used in traditional media.”

Tips on Considering the Buy

  • Although the concept is innovative, does the site’s audience composition reach that of your target audience?
  • Audience metrics that go beyond current monthly numbers are not currently available from Nielsen//NetRatings (which recently agreed to acquire Jupiter Media Metrix and ACNielsen
  • Ad serving systems may not be able to track all of the session data you want, so make sure to ask questions about technological capabilities.
  • Consider measurement criteria before you place the buy.
  • Understand the vast opportunity for creative implementation. Does your team have enough creative to support such sessions?
  • Push the edges of the envelope with creative messaging. For instance, consider using frequency-based messaging to push the user through the buying cycle.
  • Ask your sales rep about various forms of targeting, such as day part or geographic.

I like the concept, and I’m currently evaluating how it can meet the needs of my clients. How do you feel about this concept? Have you considered buying such an opportunity? Do you hope other publishers will incorporate such methodologies? Email me. I think this is just a start in bridging the gap between online and offline media.

Related reading