The Critical Importance of Optimizing for Human Attention in Advertising

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Attention is the most valuable resource in the advertising industry. It is a prerequisite for message reception, encoding, and ultimately, the ability to change perception and drive behavior. As advertising legend Bill Bernbach said, “If your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic.” 

While the idea of measuring and optimizing for human attention to improve advertising effectiveness is becoming more prominent in the industry, there are still those who believe it’s a concept too ephemeral to properly be measured or too marginal to grant the investment needed to make it mainstream. 

This adverse perspective is often driven by a limited understanding of the nuances around this topic or a deliberate effort to protect a business interest. While there’s little I can do about the latter, I want to help address the former. I do so here by laying out some of the foundations for a constructive conversation around this fundamental resource. 

Attention as a Metric to Maximize Results

Human attention can be measured and translated into a metric for the purpose of quantification. Like any metric, it should not be maximized blindly, but used to diagnose behavior within a specific context to maximize the chance of driving the desired outcome. 

We can measure in different ways, but — much like distance in a logistics system —  we generally favor destinations that are closer rather than far away. Even so, there are situations where a long distance is favored if it lowers the overall cost of production. 

As we’ll see below, we can similarly have multiple approaches to optimizing for human attention in advertising. We favor high-attention, but we can find value in low-attention environments that are properly priced. 

Aligning Incentives for a Better Customer Experience and Stronger Outcomes

Stronger outcomes are often driven by an improved customer experience. 

Because time is limited, people tune out content they deem irrelevant (i.e., little or no attention). Therefore, a message delivered in a low-attention environment will have a lower chance of influencing behavior. In turn, content or environments that keep people engaged provide a positive consumer experience and thus are desirable environments for advertising. 

When given the option, consumers will choose a low-ad load environment over one where there’s significant noise or interruptions. While the economics of stacking up ad-free subscriptions has proven to be unsustainable, new digital streaming platforms that have launched in recent years have cut by more than half the average ad-load of traditional cable TV (up to 14 minutes an hour), therefore providing a better consumer experience. This in turn not only increases the desirability of the service from a customer perspective (lower fee and lower ad-load) but also increases the receptiveness of the audience by diminishing the clutter

Average Ad Load Per Hour of Programming, Cable TV, Broadcast TV, and Streaming Platforms

But a better consumer experience cannot only be done by reducing the ad load because the economics need to work both on the network and advertiser side (balancing network revenue with increased CPM the advertisers). The sell-side should constantly work to develop highly attentive environments through content, formats, and programming innovation. In turn, the buy-side should seek and reward platforms, networks, or programming that deliver above-average levels of consumer attention with a price premium

But as long as media will be priced mostly based on reach (and in some cases “premiumness” of the programming), the industry is missing an opportunity to influence advertising effectiveness through the development of high-attention environments and messaging. 

By building and rewarding high-attention environments, both the sell-side and the buy-side of the advertising industry can align incentives to build an engaging customer experience and ultimately drive better advertiser outcomes.

Applications of Attention Measurement on Media Trading

To further fuel this virtuous cycle of creating a more effective ad environment, greater revenue for the publishers and networks, and a better experience for consumers we need to focus on the applications attention measurement can have on media trading.

When combined with on-target reach, placement or programming-level attention can provide the parameters needed to gain an advantage through arbitrage buying or a commercial guarantee

Since average attention is still not factored into the price of the media, advertisers have a short-term opportunity to secure the most valuable media by putting the price for on-target reach and average attention levels on an X-Y axis and buying high-attention, low-price environments while avoiding low-attention, high-price environments. 

Conversely, if the buy- and the sell-side agree on certain attentive impressions delivered (i.e. impressions at a specific average attention level), this could become a transparent transaction on effective media value based on a collaborative approach. 

Media attention optimization should be done on a scale and not in a binary yes-or-no paradigm. Depending on the advertiser and the goals, there could be as much value in low-attention, low-price environments as in high-attention, high-price environments. For the same reason, value and potential impact can be derived from peripheral or partial attention, especially for established brands and messages.


Sharing Accountability between Media and Creative

At this point in the conversation, many will complain that the sell-side cannot guarantee a certain level of attention on a specific creative. This is true and the buy-side cannot hold networks and publishers accountable for something they have no control over. Therefore they can only demand a guarantee on the average attention programming, daypart, or inventory purchased. 

There is a fundamental distinction between the efforts to create or choose high-attention environments to deliver a message, which is an effort for the media industry, and the craft of developing content that captures and retains high-level attention, a job best tackled by the creative industry. 

The buy-side can improve the effectiveness of their campaigns by serving their message in highly attentive environments and developing creatives optimized to retain high levels of attention

At the same time, creatives that retain high levels of attention may not be able to transmit enough information to persuade the audience, so maximizing attention alone may not lead to the desired outcome. In the same way, having a very powerful message but few people watching it in its entirety can also lead to disappointing results. This proves again that attention is not a guarantee but a prerequisite for success, but there’s also an opportunity of demanding more accountability from a brand’s creative partners.


Proving the impact

Before embarking on the journey of monitoring and optimizing media for human attention, many want to prove the impact on media ROI. While I’ve seen multiple times that high-attention environments deliver higher media effectiveness when measured through a structured media mix model (MMM), it’s always best to isolate the impact of cost to have a positive effect on ROI. As stated before, there’s value in both high- and low-attention environments, when secured at the right price (not dissimilar to Reach). 

Some will say we simply do not have enough case studies to show the impact of attention on ROI. My favorite way to reply to these skeptics is to ask them if they expect a message to influence behavior when no attention is given to it. Thankfully, the global advertising industry gives little weight to the concept of subliminal stimuli, and we can quickly move to discuss more meaningful questions. 

Although higher levels of attention cannot solely guarantee campaign success, breaking down the different components that ultimately influence outcome allows sophisticated marketers to increase the ROI of their investment by having more (in-flight) optimization levers at their disposal. 

Conclusion: Attention Measurement is a Worthwhile Field

The field of attention measurement is still nascent. There’s little consensus between well-renowned practitioners on basic concepts such as how to define attention, measure it, and if it can ever become a trading currency. Yet, this should not deter us from further exploring and investing in it. 

The ability to capture human attention is the foundation of the advertising industry
Finding solutions to complex problems and breaking down the many variables that influence our desired outcome is what makes us experts at what we do, and I’m confident that mastering the art and science of measuring and optimizing for human attention will ultimately move the advertising industry forward.


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Author: Paolo

Economist by education, marketer by profession, coffee roaster by hobby.