Monthly Active Users (MAU) or Sessions?

How should you be charged?

Some vendors decide to scale their pricing by Monthly Active Users (MAU), also referred to as Monthly Unique Visitors (MUV). Others by Unique Session. What's the right answer though, and is there one?

In my view there is only one fair way to be billed for usage by a given tool, and that is by Session. Here, I explain exactly why.

ITP (Intelligent Tracking Prevention) & ETP (Enhanced Tracking Prevention)

Let's start with some stats. The Internet is supposedly seeing over 55% of website traffic (not including social media apps) take place on mobile phone nowadays. A growing percentage of our customers have mobile traffic well into the 70-80% range.

The latest figures show Safari holds about a 54% market share in the US, or about 30% globally.

And finally, on desktop, Safari and Firefox hold about a 25% market share in the US.

Basically, they're VERY popular, and as more people favour mobile browsing over laptops, this will continue to grow.

Looking then at ITP, ETP and equivalents - browsers like Safari, Firefox, Brave etc. have carried out work strictly preventing users from being tracked from one day to the next. Cookies are destroyed, storage is emptied, tracking links are blocked, decorated URLs are stripped. As I say, all things done to stop vendors from tracking users from one day to the next.

This is where billing by MAU falls at the first hurdle - how are you supposed to accurately know it's the same person coming on day 1, 2 and 3 if the browser has discarded all identifiers? The tools can't, and your usage continues to build where it shouldn't.

Compare this to the Unique Sessions we adopt. All we want to say with certainty is that we can group a bunch of events into a given session, and that anything that happens in that session is billed as a single unit. This is perfectly achievable, when our time threshold for discarding user storage is 1 day (sessions are typically under an hour).

Incognito Mode

According to a survey in 2017, almost half of American users tested private browsing mode. Most of them continue using the mode regularly.

Whilst more comprehensive and recent stats would be great, one thing is clear. Whether it's Incognito Mode in Chrome, InPrivate mode in Edge, or the countless alternatives every browser has - Incognito mode is widely used.

Consider its purpose. It's a disposable profile which can run a session neatly but discard all data the moment it's closed. The next time you come to a website, if it said "Oh hey Sandeep, welcome back. Here's all the stuff you were doing last time that we've now used to personalise your experience" I'd be more than a little alarmed.

But that's not the case, and it's not possible. You can't track incognito mode users from one session to the next. So if you're paying by MAU, I guess that's another 1 to add on to your usage too.

These things aren't going away

Privacy isn't going away. It's a growing, evolving standard, and as the big-tech companies like Apple and Google fight it out, they'll clamp down harder on what you can track from users.

It’s the same with Incognito mode too. Usage is growing, not shrinking, as a continual stream of the younger generation adopts it into their normal way of browsing the web. For example, if you've got a shared tablet at home, and you want to buy your other half a present, Incognito mode is just the default way to go browsing and do that shopping.

So why pay by MAU then?

I would advise not to. In my opinion MAU just doesn't work. It's flawed in it's very definition of billing you by Monthly User, when those billing you have no definite way of identifying a user from one day to the next.

Webtrends Optimize has billed by session since Apple released ITP, and it remains the only way to achieve parity between what we say we're billing and what we're able to accurately identify (unless you pay by server call, which nobody wants).

Please challenge your vendors to evolve, and make sure you're not paying more than you should be.