Is time-on-site a useful measure for online communities?

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The Passage of TimeImage by ToniVC via Flickr

I’ve read a few posts and articles this week discussing a report from showing that Facebook users spend more time on site than Twitter’s. These articles make the assumption that increased time-on-site is a good thing; that it is a sign of greater engagement and involvement with the site.

It is certainly true for social networks that there are significant benefits to be gained from increasing time-on-site. Perhaps not for the immediate benefits of greater engagement, but more because it is a sign of the increasingly important role that any particular social network is playing in a user’s life. We’ve written in the past how Facebook’s valuation is possibly related to a shift in our use of the internet to put social networks at the heart of a user’s experience. And in this context, time on site is important.

But in an online community, where we are interested in shared ideas and experience rather than share of time online, is time-on-site a useful measure of engagement?

As a health measure, we use time-on-site a lot at FreshNetworks, it is useful to measure and monitor over time and together with other health measures (such as number of unique users, depth of visit and frequency of visit). But a greater time-on-site does not, in itself, mean a better online community. We are more interested in the share of ideas than the share of time online. We want people to join, benefit from and, if they wish, add to the debates and conversations in the community. We want their contributions, even if they only spend a small amount of time on the site itself. Online communities are about shared ideas and interests – we want people who add to them.

So time-on-site is a useful health measure, but it does not necessarily determine the success of your online community. That’s why we think that the success of your online community should be tied to specific business objectives, and not to relatively arbitrary measures such as time-on-site and unique visitors. We have very successful online communities with only a hundred members, and very successful ones where people visit less often or for less time. It’s about establishing your business objectives and then working to maximise your share of ideas and share of insight. Not fighting to get more time spent on your site if that time is not productive or helping you reach your aims.

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6 Responses
  • Jun 8, 2009

    Couldn’t agree more. ‘Quality over quantity’. Relevantly identified within the context of the ‘provider’.

    Measures like ‘time on site’ are derived from the advertising roots of internet stuff crossed with the providers’ childlike need for attention; along with page views they indicate the providers’ need to fill us up with adverts and prove the worth of their venture – it’s good old fashioned top down stuff.

    But ‘organisations’ need this data to make decisions, don’t they? (a thesis I wrote a long time ago indicated that many orgs say they will understand the stats churned out by the websites they spend so much on, but they don’t integrate the stats into their business decision making processes).

    When CoPs were trendy in Knowledge Management, people also tried to assert quantitative assessments there, but on downloads of objects that indicate knowledge exchange (docs, threads etc.) – that didn’t really resonate either – and now we’re in complex narrative land as you know.

    In a world of upwardly mobile indicators in a generation who equate growth to success, in a domain which generates more stats than we can imagine, the temptation to seek ‘proof’ in quantitative data is rife.

    And how to coach an organisation who ‘need’ rational/measureable/visible business information when in communities we are collaborating as humans, who don’t experience things that way – it’s experiential, so how to bridge that big gap without losing the quality?

    So… being that a community space is ‘shared’, ‘co-owned’, how about asking the community to identify the indicators?

    Ed Jun 8, 2009
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  • Jun 8, 2009

    Not to mention that “time on site” is horrible if that time is spent by trolls, troublemakers and others who are not vested in the “success” of the community. I think time spent says a lot about the community, but we have to remember that people work to fit communities into the flow of their everyday lives. So, a member who spends 15 minutes 5-6 times per day because that is what their schedule allows is just as if not *more* valuable than those who spend 4 hours per visit. I have lots of community members who come during a lunch hour, or spend 20 minutes before work while drinking coffee catching up with everyone and commenting on blogs and profiles.
    having people who engage that way on a daily basis is huge. I believe there are many metrics that come into play when measuring success.
    Angela Connor | @communitygirl

    Angela Connor Jun 8, 2009
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  • Jun 9, 2009

    Time on site can also indicate poor usability where members are finding it hard to get the answers to questions they seek!

    helentr Jun 9, 2009
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  • Footprints (09.06.09) | Chris Deary
    Jun 11, 2009

    [...] Is time-on-site a useful measure for online communities? [...]

    Footprints (09.06.09) | Chris Deary Jun 11, 2009
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  • [...] Is time on site a useful measure of how successful your online community is?: The short answer is ‘no’. This article tells you why, and where time on site is a useful measure. [...]

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