question of the week

Does a focus on attention really solve digital marketing's effectiveness problem?

There's been a shift in digital media measurement from viewability to attention metrics

By ian darby

Digital media largely makes its case to advertisers based on searingly straightforward values. Reach and impact. The argument appears compelling too - spend across digital channels is dominant in the UK, accounting for 77.2 per cent of the total media ad market.

Yet there are dissenters. There's long been a concern that some of the metrics underpinning this vast media investment just don't add up. And this is expressed in new research that focuses on "the attention economy" and urges a shift from the standard practice of prizing viewability in digital media (all impressions are the same) towards attention (time spent viewing ads is more valuable).

There's lots to like in this suggestion. Supporters claim that a shift towards attention when planning digital media will lead to better choices and a higher standard of creative execution. It could also boost important metrics such as brand recall.

This involves a cost though. A move towards prizing attention in digital media requires heavy investment in pre-testing of ads and details such as eye-tracking measurement. But would this expense be worth it for brands looking to gain every advantage, both long and short-term, from their digital advertising spend?

Dave Carpenter, head of digital, Goodstuff

Whilst ad placement, banner blindless and ad fraud are all reasons for digital advertising’s so called "effectiveness problem", simply measuring and optimising to attention is not enough. Viewability was only ever going to be the measure of whether an ad had the opportunity to be seen, not if it had been seen. It is great that we are moving on the debate into attention as logic dictates that an ad must be looked at to stand any chance of being effective.

Singling out digital as an outlier in the effectiveness challenge is not going to help us either. What we need is the whole industry to collaborate on better modelling of media impacts and their effect on sales – both online and offline.

What attention does bring us is the opportunity to create a consistent metric across all media. One thing all ads need to be effective, regardless of what media they are deployed on, is to have attention paid to them by the end user. The opportunity to bring attention metrics into better media models is a hugely exciting one and should allow marketeers and agencies to have more textured conversations about the split of their media budgets.

James Parnum, head of planning, MediaCom

At MediaCom we have come to the balanced point of view that attention matters, but only sometimes. This is because there are two sides to the attention debate, and both paradoxically are right.

On one side, there are the attention advocates of Professor Karen Nelson-Field (Amplified Intelligence) and Mike Follet (Lumen) who have built successful cases for and businesses around the power of attention, and specifically "active attention" to drive both short and long-term outcomes.

On the other side, there are attention challengers of Dr Ali Goode (working for Thinkbox) and Craig Mawdsley (of AMV fame), who on academic grounds question the eye-gazing methodology technology and that "passive attention" and low involvement processing is just as powerful. For them, "active attention" is a red herring, as it is not how people view the world or how brands are built.

How can both schools of thought be right?

This is because as humans we have developed two systems of thinking, system one (unconscious, fast, intuitive) and system two (conscious, slow, rational), and thus two states of attention – "passive" and "active" – which can help with different types of objectives across the funnel. As a rule of thumb, "passive attention" can help with mental availability, emotional barriers and established brand messages, while "active attention" supports conversion, rational barriers and new brands.

Consequently, the effectiveness of digital, or any channel for that matter, can only sometimes be improved by optimising to attention, as only "active attention" can be measured, predicted and bought with any degree of accuracy and that won’t answer the objectives of every campaign brief.

Celine Saturnino, chief operating officer, Total Media

Viewability metrics advanced digital measurement but views and viewability are a blunt instrument for measuring effectiveness and are just one of several metrics that planners will assess in the way they plan, buy and optimise advertising.

In the past 12 months, we have seen a growing focus on knowing not just if an ad was served but to the attention paid to the ad. By measuring attention we start to focus on factors such as creative cut through; the context of the advertising; the role of content and so on – providing a much more holistic view of advertising than views and viewability. Currently attention is most often measured using eye tracking and survey-based responses which gives us one level of insight but what it doesn’t tell us is how people feel about the advertising.

A further development on attention-based models is integrating emotional responsiveness using measures such as galvanic skin response and facial coding to not only know how much attention someone has paid to an ad but how it has made them feel. Using such methods we can get closer to being able to influence the metrics that matter such as how we think and feel about brands which ultimately impact purchase behaviour and overall success.

There is no question that understanding attention is another step in the right direction to both greater effectiveness and better consumer experiences online but it will be important that the industry develops a consistent method to measuring attention and is able to deliver this at scale.

Dan Plant, chief strategy officer, Starcom

“Viewability” was first defined by the industry as a solution to the very real problem of advertising that was impossible to see. But it was always possible to game the “viewability” system, and indeed we have seen that maximising viewability could sometimes end up being counter-productive for attention.

It almost goes without saying that people actually need to look at, or listen to, an ad if it is going to have any effect. So being able to identify, measure and deliver real attention as opposed to an “opportunity to see” is vital if we are going to start understanding the real effectiveness of a plan.

However, “attention” cannot be treated as a binary measure like viewability has been. Attention varies in quality and quantity, and we can’t treat it all as equal. So a campaign that delivers ten million one-second views cannot be seen as comparable to half a million twenty-second views. Both types of campaign could have value for different objectives, but just because they have the same total “attention” doesn’t mean they should be considered as equivalent.

So, a focus on attention is definitely a move in the right direction, but merely serves to highlight the very real problems we have in digital advertising rather than solving them.


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