Attention comes of age

Attention comes of age

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As we wave goodbye to the cookie, attention data is gaining more importance.

2022 has been heralded as ‘the year of attention’. Mediatel News itself is awash with prognostications about the rise of the ‘attentioneers’, providing an attention currency for the attention economy.

You know that something must be up when a company like Lumen is now the chief sponsor of the Mediatel Media Research Awards (good luck to all those who made the shortlist, by the way).

But how did we get here? And why now?

It seems to me that there are three deep drivers of the current moment: technical, political and conceptual. Understanding the depth and power of these drivers can help us understand the future trajectory of the advertising industry.

The first driver is technical. Advertising has always been about attention. There is, after all, a clue in the name: ad vetere, to turn towards. But up until now, we have not been able to do much more than note that there is a discrepancy between what people have the opportunity to see, and what they actually look at. We have collected data on impressions and viewability, and conveniently forgotten that these are only proxies for attention. Trapped in the land of the blind, we have been happy to let the man with a proxy for an eye become king.

But thanks to the rise of attention technology, the people who lived in darkness have seen a great light. Companies like Lumen and TVision collect attention data at scale from large, permanent passive panels of fully consented respondents. This data can then be turned into powerful predictive models of attention that estimate the likelihood of people looking at advertising across a variety of platforms and screens.

Lumen’s data, in particular, can be used not only in the planning process – helping brands and agencies compare and contrast the relative attention value of different inventory – but as a reporting tag and as a custom algorithm within DSPs.

Solutions beget problems. Perhaps paradoxically, it is precisely because people now have the technology to solve the problem that the problem looms ever larger.

But technical capabilities are only part of the rise of attention. A second strand of the story lies in politics. Concerned citizens and the politicians they elect have killed off the cookie. This is probably a Good Thing in terms of the sustainability of our democratic institutions, but it is definitely a Bad Thing for digital marketers who have adopted a lazy, ‘cookie knows best’ approach to business.

Such marketers have gone through the full Kubler-Ross stages of grief, from initial denial and anger, through to bargaining (though their work-arounds have been roundly rejected by the EU and UK ICOs) and on to depression and now, finally, acceptance. Attention fills a hole left by cookie targeting. It’s not the same – we’ll never forget you, cookie! – but it’s good, in a new way. The show will go on.

Attention is becoming the preferred ad valuation approach because, technically, it can be, and politically, it has to be. But there is one additional reason for its growth: attention is conceptually fashionable.

When I first started in advertising back in the last millennium, there were still some reputable people who thought that advertising worked by persuading people of a product’s merits. Friends don’t let friends think like this anymore. Andrew Ehrenberg’s ‘weak model of advertising’, popularised by people like Bryon Sharp, has swept the field.

Attention data provides important support, and even explanation, of Ehrenberg’s theory. Ads aren’t persuasive because people don’t hang around long enough to be persuaded.

According to TVision’s data from the US, the average 30-second TV ad gets looked at for around 13.8 seconds: only 9% of TV ad impressions are watched all the way through.

Lumen’s data from the UK and US for the likes of Facebook is even more stark. While it’s true that some video ads are watched from beginning to end, the vast majority are merely glanced at – the mean average attention time they receive is around 1.7 seconds. Try delivering a complex ‘reason to believe’ in the time it takes for someone to scroll past you.

Attention data helps us understand the reality of attention to advertising: how most ads are ignored; that the few ads that are looked at have to earn the attention they receive by being simple or beautiful or funny or useful; that using distinctive assets or fluent devices can build or trigger memories in the time available more powerfully than ‘rational’ messaging.

Attention data fits with the preferred paradigm of how advertising works. It is ‘good to think with’. And because it is so easy to understand, and easy to use, and fills the hole in our hearts left by the cookie, it is increasing in popularity and application. The fact that it works is also helpful: clients who use attention data to buy media or optimize creative make more money. It is no accident that 2022 will be ‘the year of attention’.

Mike Follett is Managing Director of Lumen Research

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