October 12, 2007

The Now is Time

John Triggs

Advertising, it turns out, is a lot like physics; they’re both all about time and space. Newspaper, magazine, billboard, and place-based advertisers buy space; TV and radio advertisers buy time. The online business originally aligned around a spatial construct (banner ads defined by area with two dimensions, and existing on a page); but increasingly, online advertisers are migrating toward a temporal construct, especially with the advent of online video.

Historically, Media Math has been pretty simple: “how many,” and “how much?” “How many” is the reach, or the cumulative unduplicated audience (cume), of a media vehicle or ad campaign. Online, our measure of cume is the Unique Visitor. “How much” is tonnage of consumption. In the mid-90s, the online advertising business aligned around the construct of the Page View as the atom for counting Internet consumption (Unique Visitors consume Page Views). In network TV, by contrast, the atom of tonnage is the average minute.

True to the tautology of Media Math, Unique Visitors multiplied by Page Views yields Gross Impressions.

If you followed all that, congratulations! You too can be a media researcher—or just look like one.

Lately, of course, there has been some controversy around the efficacy of the Page View as the atom of Internet consumption—largely triggered by the penetration of AJAX technology, which enables content to refresh on screen without serving a new Page View. In early July, another online metrics company announced that it would stop providing Page View-based rankings, leading to a spate of articles in the business press like this one from Forbes, asking “Is the Page View Dead?”

Meanwhile, everyone even peripherally interested in advertising knows about the industry’s love affair with engagement: two years strong and starting to look serious. With apologies to the ARF, I’m not sure anyone has developed a consensus definition of just what engagement is; we can all agree, though, that whatever it is, we want it. And we’re darned sure we want to measure it.

Engagement is a powerful idea because it represents an attempt to get at the quality of exposure. Not all exposures are engaged exposures, and we want our measurement of ad media to account for the difference. It goes beyond “How many?” and “How much?” to ask, “How good?”

These two developments—the decline in the efficacy of the Page View and the increased demand for engagement—dovetail nicely in Internet metrics, because both argue for a reconsideration of time and space. Specifically, I contend that they argue for a shift in emphasis from Page Views to duration-based audience metrics. Which, in turn, requires some thinking about how consumers, fundamentally, pay attention.

As anyone with a teenager in the house knows, today’s consumers live in an era of multi-tasking. We’re watching Lost on TV with the phone tucked between shoulder and ear while reading email and conducting three chats on IM. Developing a full picture of consumer online behavior now requires that we capture different kinds of media interactions that occur at the same time—and the best way to measure time turns out to be, by measuring time.

Maybe we need to think about online media consumption in two flavors: Time Spent, and Engaged Time Spent. What if we could track the time consumers spend with each web property—whether comprised of pages, audio, video, IM or widget—in a way that allows for capturing multi-tasking behavior? Say I’ve got Facebook and CNN.com open on my screen, along with two IM windows and a ballgame. My engagement to any one of these things ebbs and flows, but I’m spending time with all of them simultaneously. I hop to an IM window and trade messages with a friend, and for two minutes, I’m engaged with the IM client. Then I click onto Facebook to see if my friend likes the same movies as I do, and for three minutes I’m engaged with Facebook. All the while, I’m accruing time with each property (remember: a TV people meter doesn’t stop counting viewing if the panelist answers the phone or picks up a magazine.)

I’m laying all this out because I think this is where Internet audience measurement needs to go—tracking both total Time Spent (maybe we call it “Multi-tasking Time Spent”) and Engaged Time Spent. With these two metrics, advertisers and publishers could start thinking about things like Share of Time Spent; what percent of a website’s Time Spent is Engaged Time Spent, and how can they drive that figure higher? Do the same properties that accrue the highest Total Time Spent also accrue the highest Engaged Time Spent? How do consumers interact with multiple entities when they share screen space?

Some of you might be rolling your eyes right about now; “The last thing we need is MORE metrics!” But I disagree. Consumers use online media in ways that are varied, nuanced and complex; we need to make sure our metrics keep up. And we need to make sure that we keep developing metrics that are driven by consumer experience—that are customer-focused—in addition to the machine-based metrics that are the bailiwick of the Web Analytics side of the equation.

So no, I don’t think the Page View is dead. But I do think that Duration-based metrics will continue to rise in prominence, and that we’ll probably see more of them. Me, I think it’s about time.

What do you think?