Do I have your attention?

As advertisers come to understand more about capturing and holding attention, they can develop methodologies, refine strategies and invest in the right channels to make their campaigns work harder, writes Stewart Gurney.

Attention has undoubtedly become the topic du jour for advertisers and agencies over the last couple of months. The concept isn’t really new – the idea that people need to ‘see’ your advertising in order for it to have a discernible effect, has been around for ages and makes intuitive sense.

Typically, media is traded on the ‘probability that someone will see your advert’ without any real consideration for whether or not that exposure had any visual or aural attention, or how long that attention lasted. In fact, research by Lumen has indicated that up to 80 percent of advertising does not garner any meaningful attention. So, while we chase metrics like ‘viewability’ and ‘reach’ – all of which are still ‘probability of exposure’ indicators – huge swathes of our budget is spent on advertising that no one looks at.

The awesome work done by Karen Nielsen-field and Amplified Intelligence has significantly advanced the conversation. Calling for a unified trading system that can factor in the impact of attention to help advertisers understand the relative merit of different channels and media formats. Her team has done extensive research to understand how short-term advertising strength (STAS), which is a robust metric for short-term purchase, relates to different levels of attention across different channels and formats. Research has proven that even low levels of attention can impact STAS and nudge a sale.

This work is a great starting point at helping media planners, advertisers and publishers truly understand the relative impact of different channels and their subsequent worth across the attention economy. However, we are still a long way off any universal or cohesive model and the ability to trade on genuine human ‘attention’.

The word ‘attention’ by its nature implies active or explicit processing. Being able to deliberately focus on something and commit it to memory. However, we know that advertising works both on an explicit and implicit level. Influencing short-term memory and subsequent action, but also long-term memory and future decisions. Therefore linking ‘attention’ solely to short metrics like ad recall or short-term purchase, actually could be doing it a disservice.

Attention, as defined by someone looking at an advert for a specific amount of time, might actually have a greater influence on things like spontaneous brand awareness or marrying brands with specific need state. While it’s admirable to attempt to measure the impact of attention, getting it wrong can result in ineffective channel decisions and comms behaviours.

While we are getting better at measuring attention, the complexity of how advertising is decoded and influences short- and long-term purchase decisions create challenges. As a result, drawing conclusive and concrete rules around attention and advertising is extremely difficult. Despite this, it’s definitely worth the ‘attention’ of advertisers and media practitioners. When combined with evidence-based marketing theory we can make some reasonable assumptions. Here are three considerations its worth thinking about when crafting media campaigns and strategies.

Borrow attention

Context matters. When we choose to consume media, we are usually doing it with some deliberate intent. We may be playing candy crush whilst watching TV or skim reading an article, but we have usually made a conscious decision to pay attention (albeit at a fleeting or low level) to that particular show or article.

Therefore, it makes sense that advertising that can get close to (and borrow) from the credibility of that content would have a greater level of attention. Conversely, the further away you are from that ‘intent’ the more you are ignored. This thinking isn’t necessarily new, but it is often a forgotten art of media planning. Things like ‘position in break’ or putting ads next to editorial that is relevant for your product, while not sexy, could actually be the difference from your ad being looked at or ignored. Obviously no level of context will save you from uninteresting or irrelevant advertising.

Steal attention

While congruence should influence attention so should disruption. The simple logic being that we are more likely to look at something if it is unusual or disrupts the brains usual filtering system. This is the rationale as to why things like OOH special builds, cinema, catchy soundtracks or unconventional creative should make us pay more attention. While we don’t understand the true value of that attention, its clear to see that in a world where people aren’t noticing most advertising that these often more costly or polarising tactics could in fact prove to be valuable.

Target for mass attention

Conventional marketing theory all agrees that broad reach and mass marketing drives brand growth. However, if advertising inattention is as pervasive as we think it, it may be that case that many of these rules are compensating for media’s inability to be actually noticed.

Reach is deemed a successful media strategy simply because you are piling on probabilities of attention. The more people you reach, the more likely it is that more people will actually look at your ads. If we can eventually deliver on the holy grail of ‘buying attention’ across channels, this could mean that reach becomes less of a priority.

It’s important to remember the power of ‘fame’ at creating meaningful business effects for brands. When brands permeate popular culture, get talked about, shared and mimicked they unlock a disproportionate share of our hearts and wallets. This can only happen at a collective level, for ideas to spread we need to still engage with significantly sized communities and segments of the population. Imagine a world where we can start to plan for ‘community levels of attention’, building campaigns that – at least from a media placement perspective – have the optimum chances to be talked about and generate ‘fame’.

I am the first to admit I don’t have the answers, but attention is a very interesting area for discussion and consideration. As the attention experts continue to refine and develop methodologies that will help modernise the fundamentals of media trading, communication strategists and planners should be questioning how attention can help make our campaigns work harder.

A revolution is coming, and much needed change will make us think differently about value and our media decisions. Until that day is here, we should start to understand the role it plays in marketing and advertising effectiveness and truly begin paying ‘attention’ to ‘attention’.

Stewart Gurney is the chief strategy officer at Kaimera.