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Visit vs. Session

Brant Dainow
Visit vs. Session Brant Dainow

There's a very common behavior I see when people visit a site from a search engine. For example, Bob (not his real name) wants to buy an MP3 player. He starts by searching the Uoodle search engine (not its real name) for "buy MP3 player." Uoodle offers three relevant results and a pile of rubbish. Bob comes to my MP3 player site via the home page and then reviews my MP3 product pages for five minutes. He then uses his back button to return via my home page to Uoodle and review the other two sites. About 20 minutes after leaving, he returns to my site, repeats his navigation path and buys. 

This is a pretty typical purchase pattern, but no system in web analytics currently exists that can accurately record this behavior. There used to be, but the standards bodies have lost it. This article is a call to recover that ability.
We've all seen web analytics reports talking about "visit sessions" as if they are one and the same. Both the International Web Analytics Association (WAA) and the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) are now using the words "visit" and "session" interchangeably. But they used to be considered two separate things.

A "visit" is defined as a series of page requests with a gap of no more than 30 minutes between each one. This bit about the duration is key -- if there was no limit on the amount of time between page requests, I could return to your site after a week and it would still be the same visit. Why 30 minutes instead of 20 or 45? It's arbitrary, but it seems to work for most people.

Using this definition, Bob's actions constitute just one visit to my site, even though he left and then came back again. This is because the gap between page requests was less than 30 minutes. In other words, even though Bob left the site and visited multiple other sites, it all counts as just one visit because he returned in less than 30 minutes. The fact Bob left the site at all is lost.

It used to be different. The IAB had a separate definition for a session: a series of page requests from the same domain. In other words, if you left the site, the session would be over; under this system, Bob's one visit would be composed of two sessions. IAB dropped this definition because no one was using it, and they thought it was confusing to people. WAA has not formally ruled on this, but current standards being developed intentionally treat visit and session as the same thing, also to avoid confusion.

However, in my experience, this distinction is essential. For example, if I want to improve the conversion ratio of a site, I need to break my shoppers into three groups -- those who buy on their initial visit, those who buy in the space of an hour or two and those who like to think about it overnight (or longer). Each of these types thinks differently, and therefore needs different features in the site.  

First-visit purchasers don't care about you, or what other products are available -- they just want to know the product is good enough to do what they need. If it is, it'll do. These customers typically need features designed to maximize speed -- obvious navigation, scannable product pages and so on. 

People who don't return for days need time to think about their purchase. These are the people who are most sensitive to issues of trust in the company behind the site; the ones who want to know who they're dealing with. They require features focused around remembering them and reminding them about the site.

People like Bob, who are going to do a quick comparison with a few other sites, don't care about your company so much, but they are concerned that the product and/or price is the best for them. They want to quickly compare your offering with a few competitors before making a decision, but they want to get the purchase done before they leave their desk.

In order to maximize the site for any one of these groups, metrics need to be available to separate these users and analyze their behavior. This can't be done unless separate numbers can be put against sessions and visits. Let's look at what happens to Bob's data if I look at his visit and ignore his sessions:

Bob arrives on my home page, goes to my product page, then backs out to the home page. Twenty minutes later, he goes back to the product page. If I ignore the change of session, it just looks like he spends 20 minutes looking at the home page in the middle of his visit. The conclusions I draw will vary from site to site and will be based on what's in the home page, but no matter what they are, they'll be wrong. It's important to me to know that Bob left the site for a while. Not only will I be able to understand that Bob is comparison shopping, comparison of his behavior between the two sessions may be important. Let's assume Bob spends 30 seconds on the home page on the first session, but he only spends five seconds there in the second session. That tells me the navigation is easy to follow.

There are a number of derived metrics that are of potential value once you separate visits and sessions. How many sessions to a visit? This may tell me comparison shopping is an issue. How does the duration of the first session compare with subsequent sessions -- are they shorter or longer? Longer tends to indicate a person's first visit was primarily to identify sites of interest, and that they're thinking more deeply on subsequent visits. If subsequent sessions are shorter, it suggests that they have done most of their thinking on the first visit and are primarily comparing you with other sites between sessions. What is the interplay of visits and sessions in repeat visitors? These are people who come in over days or weeks. Do they also make multiple sessions per visit? Does the number of sessions per visit increase or decrease as they continue to return?

Suppose the visitor enters from different sources on each session -- I've seen behavior where someone will come from a PPC ad, then come back a few minutes later from a search listing. What does that tell me? It could well indicate the branding of the site is not memorable, or that the landing page is badly designed.

Not everyone is analyzing behavior to this level. When you first start to analyze a site you can usually improve performance without going into this much depth. However, it is almost inevitable that at some stage this behavior begins to matter. Whether you analyze the relationship between sessions and visits now or not, it's important you have the distinction available should you ever need it. If people are leaving our site and returning in less than 30 minutes, we need to know. A visit is not a session, and it's important to understand and maintain the difference.

Brandt Dainow is CEO of Think Metrics, creator of the InSite Web reporting system. Read full bio.

For years, marketers have played the role of the golfer, taking out a separate club for each target, and driving their message home as forcefully as possible. Marketers were more concerned with what they said than what the target heard, creating an endless series of monologues that fell on deaf ears.

Marketers who continually support their customers through the course of life, providing value in each communication, will find themselves scoring big in 2008. This value exchange can come in many forms, but only if the marketer truly understands the needs and aspirations of its target and commits to engaging in a genuine dialogue at every point of contact. Now is the time for marketers to be the caddie and to treat marketing as a service, to deliver real value to customers and prospects alike.

Marketers, like most duffers, tend to take a different swing with each club, resulting in inconsistent messages that fly all over the place. The need for an integrated approach to marketing is not news today, nor will it be in 2008. What will be news is the increased reliance on idea shops like Naked, Anomaly and Renegade.

J&J made headlines by hiring Naked to guide communications planning for as many as 10 of its largest brands, including baby products. These shops will be tapped to provide the big idea -- the perfect swing to reach the target regardless of the marketing discipline.

Finding the integrated idea that works across various media is more important than ever, even in a search-dominated world. A recent study by JupiterResearch shows that 39 percent of online searchers are significantly influenced by offline messaging, a fresh reminder that while it usually takes more than one club to win a match, without a consistent swing, the game is lost.

Being on the fairway consistently puts any golfer in a good mood. Marketers will hit their "fairway" in 2008, adding behavioral targeting to their contextual search efforts. For the uninitiated, behavioral targeting is the ability to deliver online ads to consumers based on their recent viewing behavior. Contextual targeting is the fancy term for search buys on Google, MSN and Yahoo.

AOL certainly believes in the future of behavioral targeting, having spent $275 million this year to buy Tacoda, the category leader. Tacoda claims to reach 120 million people in 31 discrete audience segments every month. eMarketer predicted this year that behavioral targeting will increase 10-fold over the next five years, growing from $350 million to $3.8 billion in ad spending. Other behavioral targeting firms, including Revenue Science, WhenU and newcomer Collective Media are expected to share in this growth.

A test we ran for Panasonic yielded 50 percent more imminent buyers of a particular consumer electronics product, making it a fair ways better than a simple search buy. If you haven't yet taken a swing with Tacoda and friends, put it on your short list for 2008.

Playing golf without a putter is a fool's errand. With 70 percent (some say 80 percent) broadband penetration in the U.S., streaming video is no longer optional, it is a must-have club in your marketing bag. According to eMarketer, 123 million Americans watch a video at least once a month and three-quarters of those people tell a friend about a video they have seen.

Whether you are a B2B or B2C marketer, video represents an enormous opportunity to engage, educate and entertain your target. Ninety-two percent of newspapers now have video content on their websites, up from 61 percent in 2006. Lots of brands are creating informative instructional videos to help their customers understand how to install or use their particular product or service. Others are creating pure entertainment with the hope that it will build brand affinity or drive web traffic, but the ubiquity of video is not without its challenges.

With more than 7 million hours of video content on the web, cutting through will require quality storytelling and judicious editing. One 2007 study notes that video viewing drops off dramatically after just 30 seconds. Short and sweet videos will be the "up and down" of 2008, getting your web traffic up and your complaint calls down.

Just as new technology is changing the game of golf, allowing players to drive balls longer and straighter, new mini-software applications called "widgets" are providing marketers unprecedented access to hard-to-reach targets.

If you spend any time on Facebook and MySpace you will have witnessed the explosion of widgets in 2007. According to ComScore, more than 220 million folks used widgets in the month of May alone. iLike, which allows Facebook users to share their iTunes playlists, grew to more than 10 million users in its first 10 months. Slide, which allows users to create slideshows and embed them into their social network homepages, claims to be the largest personal media network in the world, reaching 120 million unique viewers every month. Expect savvy marketers to test the limits of widgets in 2008.

Though membership at Augusta may be out of reach, marketers will be wise to join the right clubs in 2008 by capitalizing on the growing appeal of social networks. Besides the Goliaths like MySpace and Facebook, growing social networks exist in just about every niche of life, from teens (Pizco and Tagged) to seniors (Eons) to photographers (Flickr) to young do-gooders (AllDayBuffet) to B2B (LinkedIn and Plaxo) to gamblers (BetsGoWild, a Renegade client) to just about every interest group (MeetUp).

Renegade is in the process of building a virtual Gilda's Club for cancer patients and their loved ones as a means of extending and enhancing Gilda's Club's 20 physical locations. For Chase, creating a partnership with Facebook has helped make its "+1" credit card become the card of choice among college kids.

Other marketers might be smart to create a social network for their target if one doesn't exist or to take an existing virtual social network and make it physical (Second Life had its first offline convention in 2007). So figure out how you can join the club in 2008 or risk being left out of all the fun.

Most private clubs have banned cell phones from their courses and, frankly, most marketers have treated mobile with equal reticence. 2008 may be the year to give mobile a closer look as technological improvements and new products create fresh opportunities for marketers to engage mobile users. On the technology front, Bluetooth-enabled phones have made it easier for mobile marketers to provide contextually relevant information to their targets. The U.S. Air Force set up Bluetooth transmitters at racetracks as a means of communicating with possible recruits. Apple's iPhone, which seamlessly moves from cell to WiFi coverage, partnered with Google and Yahoo to enable ad-supported programming. A new service, Cellfire, has enlisted a million people to receive coupons for everything from burgers to videos.

The promise of mobile marketing is that it can deliver highly personalized and useful information right when you need it. As long as marketers don't send out annoying SMS-spam, mobile marketing could be the missing link in personalized communications in 2008.

Millions of non-golfers found themselves swinging virtual clubs this year as the Nintendo Wii transformed the notion of video games. Senior citizen centers brought in Wiis to help entertain guests and to provide an easy way for them to connect with their grandkids. This is but one of the many ways that gaming permeates our society, creating fresh ways for marketers to connect with their targets.

Recognizing the growth in gaming, MTV is investing $500 million in online games, on top of the millions it has already spent acquiring sites like AddictingGames.

Currently, gaming accounts for 13 percent of online time but only 1 percent of online ad dollars. Even B2B marketers will be smart to give gaming a fresh look in 2008 while seeking ways to blend messaging, training and/or recruiting efforts with gaming media. 

Though more kids probably played indoor golf on their favorite gaming platform than outside on a real course, the big surprise in 2007 was the growth of the out-of-home advertising industry. Growing faster than every medium except the internet, this old standby reinvented itself as a technology-rich means of engaging, entertaining and educating commuters -- commuters who are spending more and more time stuck in transit. MINI Cooper tested RFID-activated billboards that sent personalized messages to customers when they drove underneath. This highly customized approach linked "old" outdoor with "new" online, transforming an integrated media program into a cult-building private club, much to the delight of MINI drivers.

"Narrowcasting" video networks continue to sprout up, offering marketers a chance to get their messages in front of selective targets like health clubbers, deli shoppers (Captive Audience), moviegoers (IdeaCast), pet owners (SeeSaw Networks) and elevator riders (Captivate Network). A new electroluminescent vinyl called GlowSkin from Safe Lites allows vehicle wraps to literally transform before your eyes.

This and other innovations will drive out-of-home to new heights in 2008.

AT&T's "@SummerBreak" campaign

Oh, Millenials. So elusive, yet so powerful. AT&T made it clear this year it was going after Millenials, and it has done just that. With the goal of reaching a specific target audience and getting them to follow AT&T on social channels, it launched a @SummerBreak campaign. The campaign, a digital video series that existed solely on social media channels, tapped into five YouTube influencers (which are really the strongest influencers right now) to film a series. The storyline entails a group of smartphone-addicted teenagers as they spend their last summer together and get ready for college life.

The series racked up more than 15 million views on YouTube and 10 million social engagements. It was such a success, there were two seasons.

Urban Hilton Weiner's selfie coupon codes

Urban Hilton Weiner, a South African clothing brand, launched a very unique and creative campaign that all retailers should consider. Its "pay with a selfie" campaign took the fashion brand to a whole new level. Urban Hilton Weiner wasn't a particularly big name before its "pay with a selfie" campaign, but now it's one of the most talked about brands in fashion.

Customers shopping for clothes in-store could post a selfie wearing its clothes and post it on social media (Instagram, Twitter, etc.) using the hashtag #urbanselfie to receive a $10 coupon.

This campaign was truly ingenious and accomplished everything that any retailer would want from a social media initiative -- it encouraged social sharing, showcased pieces of its clothing, and most importantly, gets people buying its clothes. In fact, French Connection, Marc Jacobs, and others have launched similar campaigns since.

P&G's Always #LikeAGirl campaign

Add this one to the stack of CPG women's self-help effort campaigns that have been launching recently. But this one is a bit different. In the video, adults and a kid brother are asked to show what it looks like to run, fight, and throw like a girl. They make silly and highly stereotyped efforts. Then, young girls (I would get around 10ish) are asked to do the sale thing. These girls make confident and energetic efforts. The message: Girls' confidence plummets during puberty, and Always wants to change the perception of the phrase "like a girl."

Needless to say, this campaign spread like wildfire generating 31 million views in the first week. To date, the video is over 53 million.

Tesco's Secret Scan-ta app

England-based grocery and general merchandise retailer has come up with a pretty fantastic way to choose gifts this year -- by scanning your friend's or family's Twitter stream. It works by scanning that person's Twitter stream and providing a gift recommendation based on the content shared.

Now, I'm not sure how great the gift suggestions are, but in any event, it's a very clever way to get people engaged and sharing.

April Fools: climate controlled Virgin flights

Each year, brands take April Fools' Day in their stride and join in the fun with some believable, and many unbelievable tricks. This past April, Virgin America did one that I absolutely loved.

Richard Branson proudly announced on YouTube that Virgin America would like to give more control to the passengers by introducing Total Temperature Control (TTC). This new feature would allow passengers to create their own personal climate controlled environment on the plane. With a partnership with Nest thermostats, this joke seemed pretty real. Virgin is always on the cutting edge of trendy technology and the fact that both CEOs appeared in the very professionally developed video made this joke pretty believable.

Brands are getting more and more strategic with their social campaigns. The generic "pin-it-to-win-it" contest isn't going to make it onto this list anymore. So, get creative!

Lauren Friedman is head of global social business enablement at Adobe Systems.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


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