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

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.