Commentary

Time on Your Hands: Looking at Sessions

During these quiet times, with the market gasping along breathlessly, the online media market place finds itself week in and week out looking for things to say about itself. A few weeks ago, the IAB, MSN, Diameter, and C|net released, with what amounts to fanfare these days, research that indicates the advertising done online for a given product or service does, indeed, boost metrics relating to branding.

Then the IAB pumped out a press release about guidelines and standards for "rich media."

But no one has yet addressed the more fundamental issues of measurement standards and definitions, technological integrity of the systems we are using, or the basis media currencies we exchange in the online media space.

This week I'd like to discuss one alternative to the common metrics that are converted into a saleable inventory structure. I'd like to talk about an idea for a unit called the Session.

Sessions I will start off by saying that this is definitely a more difficult proposition than other kinds of inventory scenarios that have been proposed in the industry, but something that the industry should start to think about as an alternative to the way that all media has been bought and sold in the past. As the Internet advertising business has always been interested in being more innovative than its offline-advertising predecessors, this is something about which we need to initiate dialogue.

The first time I ever heard any one suggest buying and selling media this way was Brian Monahan, President of Inrhythm Marketing. It must have been over a year ago he first floated this idea in conversation at an industry event we were both attending. The concept is this:

- If I can determine how long a unique visitor spends on my site, why not break that time up into units and sell media inventory based on that, rather than the fleeting and quickly forgotten "impression?"

In broadcast, though I am really paying for audience, I am actually buying units of time. For television it is, most commonly, the :15 second or :30 second spot that I'm buying. Sometimes, if I'm a big advertiser (or DR running at 3am), I'll buy a longer unit of time.

For radio, the spot lengths are typically :60 seconds for local radio and :30 seconds for network radio.

And like I mentioned, though I am buying a certain volume of advertising, I'm really paying for a unit of time.

So often sites love to talk about how long visitors stay on their sites. Gaming sites love to brag that the average visitor is there for umpteen minutes a day. Media Metrix and NetRatings both report on average duration of a visit. But what does any of this mean if there is a different ad popping up on page each time a unique visitor clicks on something? The length of time a user spends with a site is meaningless to an advertiser buying impressions because what determines the likelihood of a visitor seeing your ad is more a function of the rest of the activity of the site, the number of pages visited, and the placements of your creative. The chance of an advertiser's ad being seen is only as long as it takes for a unique visitor to click to his or her next location.

So why not sell units of time for online media? Sure, the way it gets priced will have to change, but I don't think by too much. Truly, an impression is so fleeting in the online space; it's hardly worth much at all except for a strict direct response buy. But in the real awareness/branding world, it takes more than a second to make an impression, if you will. Impressions in broadcast are for as long as the ad unit; if it is a :15 second ad I run, than it is a :15 second impression. Sure, there will be fewer impressions for publishers to sell, but let's be realistic. They are already selling phantom inventory anyway by counting impressions as pageviews rather than adviews (see my article referred to above).

By holding publishers to a standard that allows an opportunity for an advertisement to have IMPACT, we might get closer to having real ad models that traditional offline advertisers can accept. And the medium might just start to grow up.

- Jim Meskauskas is Chief Internet Strategist/Media Account Director at Mediasmith, Inc., a San Francisco and New York based Interactive Media Agency and Consultancy.

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