In the mid-1990s, website server log file analysts (creating a practice later to be known as web analytics) created the concept of the session. The “session” was, philosophically, a measure reflecting the singular amount of attention that a visitor gave to a website, by landing on and loading pages, navigating links and reading content. Out of necessity, these analysts needed to define a time span around which to base good measurements and arbitrarily chose 30 minutes, and the session was born. For measurement purposes, the session might not last 30 full minutes or the session might last much longer, but if a visitor was inactive for 30 minutes, the session was over. This framing has dominated the field of web — now digital — analytics ever since, with Adobe, Google, Webtrends, Coremetrics and other tools currently defining a session (or “visit”) as the continuous, sequential behavior of a visitor on an online property until there has been no activity for 30 minutes.1
1Over the years, slight nuances have been made to account for outlier traffic, with Adobe, for example, also cutting a visit off if there has been continuous activity for 24 hours.
The session concept has become so ingrained in the way that we think about online behavior that no one questions the concept or why it was created in the first place.
From a data scientist’s perspective, such a definition was necessary: the raw server-log data reflected a barrage of continuous clickstream data of a volume not seen previously and which has only grown. While the technologies used to store this data have evolved to include big data and Hadoop-based platforms, the business container has not, limiting the insights we can gain from the clickstream. The business container in use today is still the same one created over two decades ago — a timestamp is combined with a cookie or IP address combination, and sessions are cut off with 30 minutes of gap in the clickstream. Most standard digital analytics behavior is measured within this session framework: “conversion rate” is actually “conversions per session”; “landing pages” are the first page-load within a session; “campaign response” is the campaign that generated a session; “referrers” are the websites immediately before that session, and an “exit page” is the last thing a visitor did in that session before that 30-minute window expired. The session concept has become so ingrained in the way that we think about online behavior that no one questions the concept or why it was created in the first place.
…mature organizations are moving toward the customer journey as this organizing principle, replacing the session with an over-time, multiple touchpoint view organized by life cycle stages and milestones, and collected through behavioral signatures
It is time to end this tyranny. As the word “experience” has come to dominate the digital world, mature analytics teams have realized that the true measure of engagement is not what happens during an arbitrary length of time, but what happens with a visitor during the full digital experience, and whether the brand is able to fulfill the expectations of that visitor across their entire journey. This whitepaper presents this framework, introduces ways that it should be measured, discusses the concepts of “behavioral signatures” and “milestones,” and, in the end, calls on analysts and vendors to provide the flexibility needed to break apart that 30-minute defining barrier.