What ‘Time on Site’ Means for Online Media

People’s list of work and personal priorities are growing, and they’re subject to ever more audio and video messages. Time is the consumer’s most precious commodity. Users look for an efficient experience when using online media, and they’ve developed strategies for streamlining their time consumption.

Nielsen//NetRating’s new initiative to include total minutes in its NetView metrics has caused something of a stir among online media and marketing professionals. According to Scott Ross, Nielsen//NetRatings product marketing director, this change was prompted by increased AJAX (define) use (and related content calls that reduce page views), expanded streaming, and new Web applications — instant messaging and gaming in particular.

While this change acknowledges some issues with current metrics as online media continue to evolve, it has some challenges. John Marshall, CEO of ClickTracks, notes that Web 2.0 applications are difficult to measure in general. It’s necessary to incorporate metrics into application during development. Widgets aren’t included in Nielson’s new metric, by the way.

The Marketer’s Perspective

From a marketer’s perspective, an advertising message must break through the noise and clutter and connect with prospects to affect buying decisions. To this end, consider how time on site is important in the context of the following factors:

  • Engagement. You want prospects to connect with your company, brand, or product. While actions are the ideal metric, time spent is a good proxy for engagement, especially if it’s in a favorable environment that can create a change in attitude regarding your brand.

  • Context. One of the most important factors when considering a media purchase is the environment in which the message appears. A major reason for choosing a particular media venue is to associate your brand with the media brand. There’s a significant difference between Economist.com’s audience and MySpace’s that extends beyond time spent on the site. It includes the nature of the audience, content type and quality, and reader interaction with the site and its brand. While these qualitative attributes are incorporated into the media cost, there’s no standard metric to assess them.
  • Reach. Third-party media use is important for aggregating larger audiences. Regardless of engagement level, advertising generally can’t effectively drive sufficient sales without broad reach. Total unique audience is a good indicator.
  • Frequency. While consumers may need to see an advertisement multiple times for it to make an impression, after a certain point the message starts to lose its value and may even become an annoyance. Ads served to an individual user must be capped after a certain threshold to maintain advertising effectiveness. This is particularly important on sites where a core of loyal users may return frequently, driving a large number of page views.

The Publisher Perspective

With the changes in the underlying online media technology, publishers are challenged to find new models to effectively price advertising inventory. While total time spent can be an engagement indicator and works as a method for monetizing media such as TV and radio, it doesn’t translate well to interactive media. Online media don’t have the same linear nature. It’s difficult to assess a site’s relative advertising value.

Marshall says the fundamental problem with using time on site as a primary metric is it’s not transferable from one site to another. Total time on site works well within one site because the basis for the metric is constant. Due to differences in design, editorial content, and layout, two different sites focused on the same topic may yield different times on site. This may be because one site is just more efficient than another. This innate difference can’t be translated in any simple way a media buyer could evaluate when making a buying decision.

For the foreseeable future, page views will remain the way publishers monetize their advertising. While not a perfect assessment tool given recent online media changes, it does allow comparison between sites. The reality is time on site will become a supplementary factor, like target audience and content quality, when valuing a media buy.

Bottom Line

While time spent on site is a strong proxy for engagement, and many marketers feel it’s an important qualitative measure, it can’t be effectively used to price ad inventory in a way that’s comparable across media entities. As interactive media continue to evolve, so will the metrics used to assess its effectiveness. Until then, marketers must settle for buying online media based on quantitative metrics that use multiple factors that are only directionally accurate. Time on site can be a reasonable proxy for engagement and, thus, is a valuable addition to an online marketers’ tool set.

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