How should publishers measure time spent?

Dwell time
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Knowing how long your audience spends with your content is a key metric. Call it engagement, dwell time or time on page, but understanding just how much attention you are getting from your site visitors matters. It impacts everything, from content strategy to brand loyalty, advertising placement to subscription signups. The problem is, there are many ways to measure time spent.

  • Increasing the average time spent on page is a fundamental objective for online publishers and marketers that are serious about connecting with their audiences. Unlike pageviews, which have dominated digital metrics in the past, time spent is focused on engagement rather than reach.
  • Writing on the Innovative Advertising Solutions blog from INMA (International News Media Association), three executives from Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail point to time spent as a leading indicator of engagement. But, they say, where volume metrics like page views and clicks are easy to measure, time spent can be measured in a variety of ways.
  • They highlight a lack of clarity in both sell-side and buy-side metrics on how time spent is calculated. While they question whether a universal metric can be developed without a ‘fundamental shift in the industry’, they say a focus on transparency – how time spent metrics are calculated – is needed.
Contextual metrics

Writing on the Hubspot blog last year, Anna Fitzgerald pointed out that, while optimizing your website to get people to ‘stick around’ is a clear objective, recognizing that what is a good average time on page is dependent on several variables – what type of website you have and what subject area you publish in.

  • In its 2021 Digital Experience Benchmark report, data analytics firm Contentsquare looked at over 20 billion global user sessions to determine average time on page across 10 market sectors.
    • Across all sectors, average time on page was 54 seconds
    • B2B was at least 20 seconds higher than other sectors at 1.37 minutes
    • The grocery and energy sectors were lowest at just 44 seconds

Fitzgerald notes:

This gap emphasizes the importance of using an average time on page benchmark that’s specific to your industry.

Benchmarking time spent

The Globe and Mail team say this variation makes benchmarking tricky, both internally and in terms of competitive analysis. Add in the array of different methodologies that analytics and publishing platforms use and meaningful comparisons are very difficult.

This can’t be done apples-to-apples unless you know exactly how all sides arrived at their figures.

Their advice for both publishers and marketers is to ask questions about the methodologies being used to determine time spent, what data sources are being used and how time is spent being calculated.

Looking ahead, and beyond pageview and time-spent metrics, they point to outcomes as the ideal. Action metrics, like purchases made, or branding and distribution metrics, like article recall and shares, are ultimately better measures of success.

Time spent, like impressions or clicks, is a holdover metric that pre-dates smartphones, changing user habits, and other digital developments since the start of the millennium. Measurement models have yet to catch up.

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