Attention fundamentalists risk distracting us from what really matters

Attention fundamentalists risk distracting us from what really matters

Is a one-dimensional focus on measuring attention distracting advertisers from exploiting the true effectiveness potential of different media, asks Radiocentre’s planning director.

More than three years after the launch of the Attention Council in June 2020, the debate about the importance of attentiveness to advertising rumbles on, with a recent Media Leader article highlighting new research into the relationship between attention to ads and resulting outcomes.

In reading this article, I was reminded once again how the evidence presented on this topic to date (i.e. demonstrating how higher attention delivers improved outcomes) relates exclusively to online advertising. In some ways, this is completely understandable — some of the less positive characteristics of online advertising (e.g. the low bar set for online ad viewability and ad fraud) were always going to play a significant role in disrupting the traditional relationship between “exposure” and outcomes within pure-play online media — so it makes sense to consider additional measures of value.

Within this specific context, I think most people could get on board with the logic behind capturing attention to (online) advertising. Yet, on the back of the one-dimensional evidence presented to date, attention fundamentalists continue to advocate for adopting attention metrics as a relative measure of value across all media. A relatively easy-going person by nature, I find myself acting against type and taking an unnaturally hard contrarian stance when it comes to blithely promoting attention metrics as a pan-media panacea in this way. This is driven by four specific considerations.

Undermining long-term effects

Firstly, attention is not binary — either on or off. Attention is a limited resource and can waver from second-to-second depending on how effectively people can focus on the things that matter in the moment and filter out unnecessary distractions. This creates an additional layer of complexity into the communication equation — for example, at what degree does attention become especially valuable to advertisers?

Secondly, although Bill Bernbach famously asserted that “If your advertising goes unnoticed, everything else is academic,” the evidence from psychology shows that this simply isn’t true. Academic studies reveal the important roles that recipient mood and situation play in the effective processing of advertising.

In The Hidden Power of Advertising, Robert Heath demonstrates how advertising is processed very effectively at low levels of attention — and in this way can exert powerful subconscious emotional influence on brand preference. Placing a heavy emphasis on prioritising active attention may risk undermining these important longer-term advertising effects.

Thirdly, and related to the above, different media communicate in very different ways. The current emphasis on measuring visual attention using eye-tracking completely overlooks the other vital lever that advertising uses to engage consumers — sound! In this context, it’s helpful to consider how advertising which involves audio (e.g. TV, radio) compares to purely visual advertising. Put simply, if something is not looked at, then it cannot be seen. However, if something is not listened to, it will still be heard. Because we hear everything to some degree, every audio advertising impression presents an opportunity to engage/influence the passive hearer.

Finally, considering all these factors in combination reiterates to me that the notion of defining, measuring, and applying attention consistently as a measure of media value is neither as straightforward nor (perhaps) as useful as it first appears. This is acknowledged to some degree by Mike Follett of Lumen Research (quoted in the original Media Leader article): “We can also clearly see that attention is a complex topic that requires sophisticated modelling and media planning to drive brand growth.”

Cut out the middleman

Building on this theme of complexity, I just can’t understand the drive to invest time and effort in measuring/modelling attention across media when it is, after all, just another intermediary measure of success. Surely it makes more sense to cut out the middleman and instead, more usefully, measure actual advertising outcomes in terms of, for example, positive shifts in brand awareness and perceptions, response/sales, and market share.

And when we consider the evidence from Ebiquity’s media-neutral Re-evaluating Media study, the data clearly shows that, based on the publicly available evidence, radio is the second most-effective medium for building brands after TV, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that nine out of 10 listening occasions occur in parallel to other activities.

Based on this proven effectiveness, it’s arguable that attention to audio advertising is less of a media challenge to be overcome and more of a creative opportunity to communicate with enhanced effects among all who hear it. The academic studies referenced above suggest two important creative implications to assist the conversion of hearing into listening and enhance the effectiveness of audio advertising communication in this way, e.g. when reflecting the recipient’s situation or mood, advertising is much more likely to be actively processed.

To underpin this, Radiocentre’s Hear and Now research demonstrates how advertising that directly relates to tasks or activities that listeners are participating in benefits from significantly higher levels of engagement and memory processing. These effects are so powerful that they can turn average ads into star performers.

Attention world-view lacks nuance

In summary, I’m not denying that a more nuanced understanding of attention to advertising could play a helpful role in the effective deployment of media budgets. My concern, though, is that we risk losing sight of the fact that we’re trying to connect with and affect real people — broad groups of disparate individuals with distinct lives and motivations — whose behaviour doesn’t always conform to the expectations of our somewhat rarefied media planning community. In my view, the current attention world-view lacks nuance and will struggle to provide advantage-gaining insight for planning individual campaigns, especially when used in isolation.

Aligning this perspective with Mike Follett’s observation that “…attention is a complex topic that requires sophisticated…media planning to drive brand growth.” Radiocentre’s latest research study Generation Audio set out to move audio insight on from just numbers on a page to reveal the real thoughts, feelings, and faces of those who matter most — the listeners. To encourage practical application of the findings, Radiocentre has developed an online dashboard (launching soon). This will provide media planners with easy access to the wide-ranging commercial audio audience insight derived from both qualitative and quantitative elements of Generation Audio; allowing them to export relevant data for client presentations customized to reflect the specific nature of the brand/campaign being planned.

Our ambition is that, by placing people and their reasons-for-listening at its heart, the tool will encourage media strategists to progress beyond just standard demographic targeting and adopt a more sophisticated need-states-based approach to audio planning. When combined with aligned creative strategies (e.g. mood and/or situational congruence), the evidence suggests that such approaches can significantly enhance overall campaign performance — both generally and, specifically, from a radio perspective. Surely that’s got to be worthy of everyone’s attention!

Mark Barber is planning director at Radiocentre

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