Digital MarketingStrategiesHow Many Users Are “One”?

How Many Users Are "One"?

Everything online is measurable -- except when it isn't.

On the Internet, no one knows if you’re a dog.

OK, they probably assume you’re not a dog. Yet ever fewer are able to surmise, as you navigate the Web in your living room, that you’re the same person who visited that site from work an hour ago.

Mosey into the kitchen and relinquish your place at the keyboard. If you didn’t log out, possibly you’ve suddenly become your husband, your mother-in-law, your daughter, her best friend, or the babysitter.

And that online session (it may be an endless session, if you live in an always-on broadband home) careens wildly from to to eBay to iVillage to

How many unique visitors does your site have? How many unique visits? Subscribers? What behaviorally targeted ads should be served? If you’re Amazon, should you recommend baby wear, Bartok or Bluetooth to this visitor? If they first searched for the item on A9, whose search history will it be part of?

In a world of single users with multiple PCs, multiple users sharing a single PC, always-on broadband, Web-enabled mobile devices and all kinds of blocking software, the Internet who’s whos: ad networks, personalization, cookies, analytics packages, email links; IP address geo-targeting, clickstreams, and affiliate links — to name a few — can be flummoxed. Not good news for marketers or publishers.

Ad networks in particular hate talking about this, but by all indications, many online marketers and publishers may know less about their visitors now than they did in the olden days of more limited Web access, unavailable broadband, and fewer privacy concerns.

Put another way, does think I’m three different people if I access the site from home, from work and on my Web-enabled phone (which doesn’t accept cookies)? I know they can’t distinguish me from my significant other who regularly visits the site from my two persistently logged-in home computers.

JupiterResearch pegged bimodal users, surfers who go online at home as well as from school or work, at 51.1 percent in 2002. The study predicts that number will grow to 62.5 percent in 2007. Another Jupiter/Ipsos study found the overwhelming majority of one- to five-person U.S. households own only one computer. Only when six or more people live under the same roof are there two machines, on average. To confuse matters further, 26 percent of one-person households own multiple PCs.

Issue…or Problem?

Obviously, the fact that all these users float between all these computers is an issue when it comes to metrics, ad targeting and personalization. How much of an issue is it? Has it reached problem proportions?

“It’s absolutely a problem,” affirms Jupiter analyst Eric Peterson, “in terms of technologies that depend on accurately being able to identify a visitor. Use of multiple computers is definitely a problem.”

“As much as 30 percent of some audiences may be logging in from at least two computers, home and work. For analytics, behavioral technology, and personalization technology that may or may not require a log-in, it adds additional complexity. Accounts will be wrong, ads will be less targeted, personalization will be off,” he explained. “A pretty good number of consumers are using the same computer at home and at work. That will continue to contribute to accuracy issues.”

Eric agrees behavioral targeting is directly in the line of fire. “What if 30 cents of every dollar is 30 cents that goes straight into the garbage can? Cookies are a problem. A number of businesses are based on the establishment of cookie acceptance. That’s proving not to be true. Marketers are going to have to reexamine their investment. Tracking technologies know when they’re blocked. They have no way of knowing when they’re deleted.”

Thor Johnson, Eloqua‘s SVP of marketing, considers the issue critically important. “I want to know at the end of the day that you downloaded four white papers at home, and three from work. You, a person with history, must be matched to that other person with history. So when you log-on to our site, we say ‘Are you really Rebecca?’ We provide an incentive to provide the correct information.”

Pass-along email is a major issue for Thor’s company and its B2B clients. “I’m going to send you an email and if you click, you’re logged on as you. If you pass it along to someone else, that’s different. If three different people open it, I want to know that, and know that you’re a power influencer and know all three people.”

Good manners, he says, is how the issue is dealt with. A personalized landing page greets visitors by name and politely requests people coming in from a personalized email link to log-out and re-register if they’re not the person the site thinks they are.

While Thor says results are satisfactory in the B2B world, it seems unlikely your average consumer would be so solicitous. He also says, regarding his family of four’s shared computer, everyone logs off as an individual user when their session is over. That isn’t the case chez moi. A straw poll of friends and co-workers found everyone pretty evenly divided on the issue.

Recently, I visited a site with a movie intro. The clip was over before I could clap on headphones and hear the audio, and it wouldn’t reload. I immediately burrowed in to delete the cookie in order to view the ad message (yes, ad message). To the financial services company behind the site, I was a whole new prospect.

I related this to Eric Peterson (he’s currently researching cookie deletion). He asked a strange question: “Do you consider yourself a technically sophisticated user?”

Smarter than the average bear, but surrounded by mega-geeks all day, I know better than to call myself “technically sophisticated.” That’s Eric’s point. “More and more non-technical people are saying things like, ‘I wanted to see that movie again, so I went in and deleted the cookie.'”

“Consumer behavior cannot be carefully controlled and put in a box. They’re going to learn the things they think are important, and not do the things they think aren’t important. The onus is on the technology vendors to accurately reflect their use through technology.

“More and more companies are saying, ‘our customer metrics don’t look right,’ Eric added. “That’s driving more intense scrutiny and accuracy. And that’s cool. It’s good to revisit our assumptions.”

Meet Rebecca at Search Engine Strategies in New York City, February 28-March 3.

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