How to Use Google Analytics New vs Returning User Report

With Google Analytics, we can apply user segments to analyze how different user types interact with our site. User segments correspond to the characteristics and behaviors of site visitors. Two such segments are the new and returning user segments. To make things easy, Google has created these segments for us, and you can find them in the segment list.
screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-12-24-47-pm
You can compare new and returning users in the Audience → Behavior section of GA. Before diving in, let’s talk about the way Google collects new and returning user data.
Google tracks user behavior with cookies. Cookies are specific to your browser and device. When a device or browser loads website content, Google creates a unique ID and records a user in GA. Each time Google detects a new ID, a new user is counted. If you need a quick refresher on the difference between Users vs. Sessions in Google Analytics, we got you covered.
If you visit a site on your computer and then on your phone, you’ll be counted as a new user in both cases. If you switch browsers, you’re a new user again. Clear your cookies? Google will record a new user after this, too. Google’s Universal Analytics functionality partially mitigates this problem. If you’re logged into a browser across devices, Google only counts you once. If you’re not logged in, Google can’t link your cross device behavior and hence, double counting.
Because of this imperfect data collection process, we can assume that the new vs. returning user report shows a slightly elevated percentage of new users. Still, the report tracks site usage and engagement and provides valuable insights.
screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-12-25-14-pm
In this example from Whole Whale’s site, we see that returning users are spending more time on the site, but are a smaller portion of overall traffic. With goals set up, we can also see which users are completing goals. This data informs engagement strategies. For example, we can encourage new user email signups with popups but avoid showing popups to returning users. If conversion rate is low for new users, we can track assisted conversions and see which traffic channels send users down the conversion funnel over time. The new vs. returning report helps us determine when and how to engage audience segments.
screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-12-25-39-pm

Be sure to compare goal conversion rates rather than goal completions. Returning users are often a smaller percentage of your traffic, so goal completions will be lower for this segment.
This report also shows the percentage breakdown of new and returning visitors, a useful metric depending on your site’s goals. Do you want to bring users in once to complete a single action, like signing up for an event? Do you want people coming back to use your content as a resource? The percentage breakdown tells you if you’re giving visitors what they need. You can also track your site’s performance over time. If your goal is to increase returning users, we’d expect a higher percentage of returning users and a lower percentage of new users year over year. Set a comparison date range and see if you’re moving in the right direction.
screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-3-21-42-pm
To supplement the new vs. returning user report, you can apply Google’s premade segments to any report in GA. Apply segments to the landing page report to see where new and returning users enter your site. Engage your audience accordingly – popups may work well on top landing pages for new users.
The top content report shows where users are spending the most time. Strategize where you add calls to action. Asking visitors to sign up for an event or make a donation may work best on top pages for returning users.  
The users flow report is another place to compare new and returning. Are new users dropping off after the homepage? This could indicate that your site structure is confusing for people who don’t know your organization. Check on your site navigation and simplify it for first time visitors.
Apply new and returning users segments to the acquisition report. If organic search isn’t sending new users, focus on writing better content for the web and optimizing for search engines. This will help you rank in search engine results and drive organic traffic. How’s your social media traffic? If social isn’t sending returning users, create better social media posts to engage your followers and bring them back to your site. Check on email acquisition as well. Your email subscribers have likely been to your site before. If your email traffic isn’t coming from returning users, get people to open your emails. Give subscribers a reason to come back to your site.   
Aside from GA’s existing reports, create custom reports with the metrics that matter to you. Apply new and returning user segments, and use the data to inform your engagement strategies.
Use Google Analytics’ new vs. returning reports and segments to understand the potential for different types of visitors and make the most of your traffic. As always, keep Google’s data collection processes and the caveats of cookies in mind. Happy analyzing!