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For mobile apps, user engagement is measured in terms of app sessions. However, the way users engage with apps varies not only across different types of apps, but also by each individual user. So how should we think about this activity?

Imagine you hop onto a social media platform during the workday. Every hour or so you give your brain a break and spend a few minutes scrolling around, throwing out the occasional like or retweet. Then it’s back to work. All told, you’ve only spent about 30 minutes total on the app, but that activity has been spread throughout an entire today. How should marketers categorize your engagement?

Or picture this. You pull up a music streaming app, settle on a radio station that looks good, and lock your phone. As you go about your business, the station continues to stream. Technically you only used the app for a minute as you were pulling up the station, but the music has been playing for hours. How should we think about this activity?

What Is an App Session?

For mobile apps, user engagement is measured in terms of app sessions—that is, the number of times a given user has engaged with a particular app. Strictly speaking, an app session starts when a user opens an application and ends when they exit it. It’s essentially the basic unit for measuring audience engagement on mobile platforms, but that doesn’t mean it’s as scientific or standardized as a meter or a gram.

Ordinarily, opening a given mobile app starts an app session, while closing the app ends the session. A session can also end when a user turns to another app and leaves yours running in the background. In this case, an automatic time-out usually ends the app session after about 30 minutes.

What Do App Sessions Mean for Marketing?

App sessions are a foundational data point when it comes to understanding how your users are engaging with your native app. After all, if you don’t know when a user is engaging with your app, you’re going to be hard-pressed to communicate with them in relevant, meaningful ways.

That said, different kinds of app session information tend to be used for different marketing purposes and to support different kinds of insights. For instance, knowing when a given user first logged an app session is a great way to understand how long they’ve been engaging. On the other hand, knowing when someone logged their most recent session can be a great proxy for how engaged that user is—was it this morning, or two weeks ago? Separately, having a window into a user’s total number of sessions with your app allows you to see how often they’ve engaged compared to other users and how often they’re engaging, on average.

Some of these app session-related metrics are likely to be most useful to marketers when it comes to benchmarking performance or assessing overall customer health. For instance, if you find that customers who joined in the past month are reaching session milestones at a slower rate than older customers did, that might be a sign that there’s an issue with your new onboarding program.

However, session data can also be a powerful tool for supporting more relevant, targeted campaigns via dynamic segmentation. With the Braze customer engagement platform, for instance, marketers can easily build audience segments based on first app session dates (to target users based on how long they’ve been a customers), most recent session dates (to re-engage users who haven’t opened the app for a while, or to reward active users), or based on average session length (allowing brands to send different messages to users who linger in the app and those who pop in and out).

Ultimately, effectively tracking app sessions is one of the best ways to tell whether users are engaging with your app, how frequently they’re doing it, and how much time they’re spending there—all of which is critical information if you’re trying to deliver timely, tailored mobile messages within your app (think in-app messaging or Content Cards) or mobile push to reach users beyond it.

How Should Marketers Think About App Sessions?

The baseline mechanics of app sessions are important in understanding how you may need to adjust your metrics to fit your particular service. A clear picture of a user’s real engagement allows you to create a more fluid, personalized customer journey and ensures they’ll see your messaging right when they need to.

As our earlier examples demonstrate, different app experiences are going to require different ways of conceptualizing engagement, meaning businesses can be—and should be—flexible in how they define and track app sessions on mobile. For the social media example above, a standard session timeout of about 30 minutes might result in a single app session lasting eight full hours, obscuring that users’ actual engagement pattern. In the music streaming example, on the other hand, the brand in question might come away with the impression that a user has disengaged and then send them a push to encourage them to listen to music...all while that user is already listening to one of their stations.

Adjusting the session timeout for your app is one of your best tools at your disposal for accurately capturing user engagement and avoiding these kinds of broken customer experiences. But before you can do that effectively, you need to think through the implications of making a shift. In general, reducing the length of your app’s session timeout will lead customers to log more sessions of shorter durations, while extending your session timeout will result in fewer sessions of longer durations.

In the social media example, lowering your session timeout to something like 15 minutes would likely provide a better picture of how our hypothetical user is taking advantage of the app. Why? Because the shorter session timeout windows would more closely resemble actual user behavior, giving the social media platform a more accurate window of how often users were really coming back to the app. In the music streaming example, however, the brand in question might well be better off looking at the average length of time that users tend to spend listening to music and then extend their session timeouts to more closely match that window, providing a more accurate picture of user engagement and reducing the odds that their users received unwanted re-engagement messages.

Anything Else

Of course, every user is going to have different engagement patterns, and no single-session timeout is going to fit everyone. But by paying attention to how your actual users interact with your app, you can get a more accurate picture of what your audience’s engagement patterns look like...and decrease the likelihood of sending out bothersome messages that distract from the user experience.

For guidance on how to communicate effectively with your brand’s active customers when they’re already inside your app, check our In-App Message Guide.