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Debate: Is attention a proxy for effectiveness or outcomes?

Debate: Is attention a proxy for effectiveness or outcomes?


Attention’s revolving role in media is clearly a debatable topic, as shown by the response to a column published last week.

Three media research leaders have spoken out on how attention should be viewed in media planning and buying in the comment section of a recent piece on The Media Leader.

In a recent column on The Media Leader Andy Brown, CEO of The Attention Council, argued “less can truly be more” when it comes to attention and audience measurement.

“We’re seeing the first rule of attention measurement being challenged. Because, almost by definition, those solutions are being achieved with lower audience counts,” he said.

‘Challenging the status quo’

In the same piece, he argued that incorporating “attention” into audience measurement would move from a gross opportunity to see to a net opportunity to see, which could affect media audiences, currencies and effectiveness.

He addressed the higher adoption levels of adoption of attention metrics on the digital side of the business compared to “TV”, and raised the difficulty in “challenging the status quo” of the TV trading system, and the differences between visual and auditory attention.

In an asterix on the article he referred to an attention study by Thinkbox and Gorilla in the Room: “My (only slightly) tongue-in-cheek response to this study: as an advertiser, why I am paying for an audio-visual cost per thousand and getting an audio delivery? To be fair to Thinkbox, and the UK TV industry in general, there is undoubtedly some impact of audio branding.”

TV more cautious about attention?

This prompted a responses from Matt Hill, director of research and planning at Thinkbox, who said attention is not a concern for TV advertising in the same way it is for online display advertising.

“In any attention study, TV outperforms most, if not all, others,” Hill said.

He explained: “Attention is not just visual (as you note in your article). Audio attention is vital, and this is partly why TV does so well. It’s true that the TV industry has been cautious with attention metrics — it’s also understandable. Attention measurement was originally designed for the online world. whose existing metrics (impressions) are a very poor proxy for effectiveness. Attention is another, better proxy.”

“This is not an issue for TV — ask any econometrician: TV ratings highly correlate with effectiveness,” he added

Addressing a question Brown posed about why an advertiser might pay a TV cost-per-thousand when people might only hear the ad in the background, Hill said the “attention mix” you get with TV is already basked into the CPT.

He said: “If TV was always watched with full visual attention then that would likely reflect in its effectiveness and the price would be higher than it is.

Beware ‘unintended consequences’

With regards to creative quality, Hill pointed out that, with an exposure-based currency, the advertiser is paying for the opportunity to gain attention and so is incentivised to do this task well.

However, with a visual attention-based currency, the advertiser is paying for eyes-on-screen.

“So — through no fault of their delivery and the context they offer — the media owner is out of pocket if the ad itself just isn’t very good at gaining visual attention.

“Weirdly, this could inadvertently be more cost-incentivising for an advertiser: if they’re only charged for ads that are looked at, the cost-effective thing to do would be to make an ad that isn’t looked at (so its delivery is free or very cheap) but still has an audio effect. Unlikely, but we should bear unintended consequences in mind.”

Rather than using a proxy measure of effectiveness (like attention) to optimise planning, TV companies are looking at how to optimise against actually achieving a specific goal, Hill said.

Andy Brown agreed TV was “a winner when it comes to attention”, but questioned: “What happens when the inventory is delivered and the needle does not move on the outcomes? Attention may be a way of telling the client their “baby is ugly. In some ways the point of this article was to share that for any change in TV sales and buying, there may be a necessary need to accept a lower audience count.”

Attention is a mental resource

Cognitive scientist Dr Ali Goode responded to Brown’s piece highlighting that attention was a mental resource shared around the senses, and this affected advertising processing.

He added: “The key point was that we demonstrated, something that has long been accepted academic psychology community, that attention is a mental resource that is shared around the senses and is not linked to one specific sense.

“If you deplete the mental resource using one sense, there is less available for the other senses. Talking on a mobile phone is banned when driving as talking depletes the attention left for visual tasks needed to drive safely.

“We were able to show this with advertising also, if we depleted attention through and auditory task, visual attention got worse and visa versa. We showed that auditory attention was more resilient to distraction than visual attention. So with AV ads, auditory content will both communicate in its own right but also mediate where visual attention is directed. Again it is generally accepted that you don’t look around for something to listen to, your gaze is attracted by what you hear.

“Finally, we also showed the more the attentional resource was depleted the less that was available for ad processing. A low attention task such as listening to music reduced the attention available for ad processing less than a high attention task such as talking.

“This was exactly in line with Load Theory the most widely accepted theory on attention.

“Because of this, hypothesis was that ads with an auditory content do need to be considered differently to those that are just visual alone. My personal view is that low attention processing needs to be revisited, however, it does need to be re-defined as Robert Heath’s ideas generally don’t work.”

Dr Goode led the Thinkbox study Brown mentioned in his note, and he clarified that it was a fully controlled empirical study with a professor who is a “world-renowned expert in attention”, and used statistical testing to produce its results.

We need to be careful about conflating audience and outcomes

Denise Turner, Route Research CEO, wanted to make clear that attention measurement was not originally designed for the online world.

She explained: “Attention measurement in the form of visibility, whether people can actually see a poster or a screen, has been baked into the Out of Home (OOH) currency in this country, since Postar was launched in 1996, long before online advertising became a thing. And the team at the time used expert academics to guide and inform the process and conduct the research. That continues to this day with Route, which was the evolution of Postar.

Turner’s personal observation, after years of working across media channels and running effectiveness teams, was that “we need to be careful about conflating the counting of audience with the outcomes”.

She added: “At Route we deliver a realistic count of exposure to advertising, and by whom. Effectiveness is about overlaying other data sources, and the interaction with other channels to determine whether people did anything as a result.”

The Media Leader team highly appreciate the informed comments we get on the site and via email in response to our analysis and commentary from our contributors.

Please contact us if you want to see more debates about important media and advertising issues and we’ll make it our 2024 resolution to make them happen.

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Nick Drew, CEO, Fuse Insights, on 27 Nov 2023
“I'm watching this debate with interest - and it is good to see it being discussed in a measured way (no pun intended). My own 2c is that attention probably is a small improvement in online ad buying - an evolution of viewability, if you like. But it really isn't the silver bullet online vendors are making it out to be, for all the reasons mentioned above by the experts - and because it's currently a minefield of competing black box measures.”
Anna Sampson, consultant , Anna Sampson Consulting , on 27 Nov 2023
“I couldn’t agree more with the comments about peripheral attention. If we are honest this is how a huge percentage of advertising works. We also need to foster a greater understanding of how attention to advertising and creative impact intersect. Whilst it’s true that ultimately it’s effectiveness that matters, a better understanding of attention will help us design for effectiveness. If we understand the contextual factors and creative devices that drive attention, we stand a better chance of making advertising unignorable. This is important in a world where advertising is increasingly seen as irrelevant and annoying and technology is making it ever more possible to avoid advertising. Whilst so much work has happened in this space there are still unanswered questions. Attention is complex to measure and understand. In the next phase of research I’d like to see a wider variety of data points bought together to advance our understanding.”

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