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Time to kill the “unique”?

Are we measuring things that don't properly reflect reality? By Sue Unerman, Chief Strategy Officer, MediaCom UK

Q: When is a unique visitor not a unique visitor ?

A: Most of the time.

Which, as my mother would put it, is a bit like saying that you are “a bit” pregnant.

Unique visitors to websites remains a metric that is commonly used to understand the flow of audience and the success of online content, particularly for brand advertising and when ecommerce is secondary or irrelevant to objectives.

These days, however, a unique visitor metric is not truly unique to an individual in the way that it used to be so that, once again, we are measuring things that don’t properly reflect reality.

If you see a great poster that drives you to a website you may well act immediately, whip out your mobile phone and access it straight away.  That’s one unique visit.  However, it may be that you find that the site requires more involvement that you can manage on the go, as it were, so you wait till you get back to your desk and go to the site on your laptop to have a good browse of its content.  That’s unique visit number two.  But just then your boss calls you in to a meeting, so don’t get to really spend time on this very good site until you get home in the evening and go to it on your iPad.  Unique visit number three.

Three unique visits.  One person.  And no simple way of knowing or agreed industry factor for whether the three visits are one person, or two or three (unless you have registered with and used Chrome, in which case Google know).  Now all those visits are very welcome (it’s not Royston Vasey after all) but it would be really useful to know them a bit better.

Does it matter? Aside from the fact that it is an appalling mis-use of language, it matters because we are measuring and predicting success in a way that does not match up with the return on investment. Planning of a repeat reach-based campaign online may well be based on unique visitors (in the way that it was last year) while the reality of the ratio of unique visitors to how many people you’re really getting as paying customers has changed fundamentally simply after the “tablet Christmas” we have just had.

The reality of uniques to real individuals will depend massively on the type of content and the type of person. A 35 year old ABC1 man with a smart phone, iPad and laptop is not going to behave in the same way, of course, as a 65 year old C2 housewife who logs on to Facebook from a pc once a week, to catch up with her grandchildren. The entertainment category will not generate the same behaviour as snack food.  How much it matters will depend on the kpi of the campaign (if you’re selling a DVD, so long as enough people buy it, it may not matter how many uniques your campaign attracted, but if you’re trying to change consideration in a category then the tracking of that awareness versus your planned campaign may be change significantly).

There are ways through the data, of course. Yet unique visitors are not what they were or even what they ever claimed to be. Let’s just get rid of the terminology before we start making too many decisions based on a dodgy metric. At MediaCom we’re changing how we make visitors accountable, but surely it is not beyond the wit and wisdom of our industry to develop a better general measure to drive industry growth in a sustained way.

First published here on Sue Unerman’s blog.

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