Measuring Engagement & The Dangers of Dwell-Time

I was driven to write this post after chatting to the online marketing manager of a large international company, who told me that ‘dwell-time’ was now one of their most important KPIs; and that they had issued instructions to all local marketing teams that the primary focus for the coming year was to ‘increase dwell-time’, thereby getting customers ‘more engaged’.

This is a very common example of the way many companies view their websites. Personally I think it might come from too many years dealing with traditional offline media – “if only we could find a way to get people to look at our bill-board for longer, and pay more attention to it!”

The danger of dwell-time

However, in most cases measuring dwell-time as ‘engagement’ (or even at all) is not only wrong, but is frankly dangerous. Just a few of the reasons for this are as follows:

  • A lot of your visitors are at your site because they want to get something done, quickly: place an order for something they decided to buy last week; find your address; get help; and so on. Why do you want this to take longer? If you ran a supermarket you might want people to spend longer browsing the aisles, but would you want them to have to queue for longer at the check-out??
  • I might spend 2 hours ‘engaging’ with every aspect of your site, but that might be because I despise you and am learning everything about you so I can destroy you! This is extreme, but the point is that engagement isn’t necessarily positive engagement.
  • Most companies find, if they run the analysis, that people who buy things spent longer on the site than people who didn’t. This leads them to think that if they can get people to spend longer on the site then they will surely buy more stuff. This is one of the biggest errors I see in web analytics, and not just regarding this example. People who buy things don’t buy things because they were on the site longer, they were on the site longer because they were in the mood to buy something, or because your site was relevant to them. Simply getting people to stay on the site longer doesn’t change their state of mind, and by obsessing over it you ignore the real underlying drivers.
  • If what you really want to do is get people more engaged with your content, and get them to think positively about it – why not just measure that? Do a survey or run some focus groups; ask them what they thought and, if they don’t like it, ask them why not and how you can improve it. This kind of brand engagement is a deeply emotional and qualitative thing – how on earth do you expect to correlate it to something so cold and bland as the time they spent on your site?

But there is something more fundamental underlying all this. I think in most of these cases companies (especially non-ecommerce sites) are unsure what their website IS; what it means to them strategically and, more importantly, the role it plays in the overall journeys taken by their different customer segments. How exactly do you want the content on your site to influence your customers behaviour? Do you even know how your customers are using the site at the moment? Until these questions are answered (quantitatively and qualitatively) you will never be able to meet them in relevant dialogue through your site. And if you really think this through, and then think back to the concept of pure dwell-time – how absurd does that sound now? It’s like locking the doors of the shop and not letting people out!

But we are trying to achieve something, so what is it and how do we go about it?

Nevertheless, websites do have a communicative role to play. Our visitors need to be influenced, motivated, persuaded, dazzled, awed – not just to make them buy something, but so that we become part of their lives in whatever way is relevant to them. So how do we do it? Well, unfortunately the answer to this question is deeply unique to every single business – you need to go on your own voyage of discovery in order to understand exactly what ‘success’ and ‘performance’ mean to you and therefore how to influence them. However, here are some tips to set you off:

  • Push the site itself (and especially anything to do with click-stream data) out of your mind temporarily. Work out who your customers are and why and how they want to interact with you as a business. Similarly, work out how you want them to think of you, and what role you want to play in their lives. Now, in the middle of all this – what does/might the website mean to them; how does it help them; what would make it important to them? If you have the budget I would strongly recommend this being a major research project.
  • Remember that you don’t just have one type of customer, and even similar customers want different things at different times. Segment your customers by who they are and what they want to achieve, and make sure you understand the above question according to these different types of customers. What role does the site play for them at the current stage in their journey with you?
  • Ensure that your objectives and KPIs reflect this understanding. If by engagement you really mean that all visitors successfully completed what they came to do, then ask them whether they did or not and use this as a KPI. If the journeys and tasks that people want to perform are totally different, then you need different KPIs.
  • If things like dwell-time are still relevant to some of these journeys then use them, but remember and take heed: these are indicators of other behaviours or attitudes. You cannot influence this metric directly. Know what drives it!
  • Never rely solely on click-stream data as your source of insight. Sometimes it is easier for continual reporting if all KPIs are based on click-stream, but if this is the case then you need to make sure you explain and drive these metrics using other, qualitative sources of data. Click-stream is the what, not the why!
Above all, remember that your website is not and will never be a ‘pamphlet on the web’. You might think of it like this, but your customers most certainly don’t. These days brands sink or swim based on how effectively they ‘engage’ with people through digital channels, but this ‘engagement’ is a million miles away from ‘dwell-time’!

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