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How to resolve the attention paradox

How to resolve the attention paradox


Can attention be both the “North Star to effectiveness” but also “really not how advertising works”?

In January Mike Follett of Lumen Research declared 2022 to be the Year of Attention, here in The Media Leader, which was no surprise. Media owners are investing in research and clients are asking lots of questions about it.

So, as a strategist, I’ve spent a lot of time recently immersing myself in the topic and discussing with my colleagues. It soon became clear that despite all this focus, there isn’t a clear agreement on how much it matters and when.

This is important: there is often a rush to optimise campaigns to new metrics, and there is a risk this could happen around an issue where consensus isn’t fully settled.

There are two main schools of thought:

Professor Karen Nelson-Field of Amplified Intelligence, one of the world-renowned experts in the field of attention, last year described attention as the “North Star to ad effectiveness” in her column here on The Media Leader.

However there is an opposing point of view, I think best summed up by legendary strategist Craig Mawdsley, in a recent blog post: “It has all proven that this is really not how advertising works. The main thing advertising does is to reinforce long-term brand associations. This doesn’t happen when people pay active attention… they happen when people aren’t really paying attention.”

Can both points be true at the same time? Both the “north star to effectiveness” and “really not how advertising works”?

Attention and the brain

At MediaCom our point of view is that they are both right – but in different ways.

The role of attention, and active attention in particular, varies depending on a campaign’s objectives, and for a reason that goes back to the basics of human psychology.

In Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast & Slow, he sets up the dichotomy of the brain’s modes of thought. System 1 is fast, intuitive, instinctive – and crucially largely unconscious. System 2 is slow, logical, takes time and energy – and is very conscious. It is estimated that most of the time the brain processes signals in System 1, with just 5% of mental activity devoted to conscious processing.

So, what does that mean for attention?

For much established brand advertising, where maintaining mental availability is important, we think it works in the manner described by Mawdsley. Brand advertising works by reinforcing long-term brand associations, and active attention really isn’t necessary for that.

It shows why the type of ‘distinctive assets” talked about by Professor Byron Sharp in How Brands Grow are so important –  distinctive, ownable brand assets like colours, logos, brand lines and sonic triggers –  that are the type of stimulus more likely to be processed in a less conscious, System 1-type way.

For these types of campaigns, paying extra for the formats and channels with the highest active attention isn’t necessary. In fact, the relative extra impact of active attention over passive attention is relatively slight, and there is even evidence that ‘zero’ attention can still have an impact: someone looking away from the screen but processing some form of familiar sonic trigger would be seen as paying no attention, but we know still works for System 1-type processing.

Attention really matters for rational consideration and conversion

But for many other types of campaigns that require some form of rational response –  such as launching a new brand or variant; where there is a clear new offer you want people to know about; where you want people to take a clear and immediate action; or trying to find people in market deciding what to do – that’s when you need to appeal to the sparse resources of System 2 thought.

Geoff de Burca

That’s where attention can be the superpower that helps you cut through in the ‘messy middle’. These are the campaign objectives where you need to optimize your plan to the channels, formats and contexts that have higher attention, and applying the learnings from Lumen, Amplified Intelligence and others. We’ve seen that optimising these types of campaigns to attention drives better short-term outcomes.

Attention matters – sometimes

So, in summary – attention does matter, and it’s important to optimise towards it for campaigns that have a clear rational message or short-term outcome. But it doesn’t matter for every campaign – for campaigns that are primarily about brand metrics such as mental availability, focus on getting your distinctive assets right and let your System 1 mode do its work.

Geoff De Burca is chief strategy officer at MediaCom UK

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ErezLevin, Product Specialist, Google, on 13 Apr 2022
“Really enjoyed this piece! I would however argue that you should *always* optimize for Attention, though that doesn't mean you should always optimize for *High* Attention.

Low Attention ads can certainly prove effective for specific outcomes, brands, creatives, etc., but they *must* be priced accordingly. That is not happening today, especially in the fragmented digital media channels, and that is the opportunity we must focus on: Attention or Quality-adjusted ad pricing to maximize ad efficiency and effectiveness.”
AndyBrown, CEO, The Attention Council, on 13 Apr 2022
“A good piece Geoff. In my role at The Attention Council, my job is to promote the use of attention metrics. I would not say that this is an "opposing" view, but perhaps a balanced view. Gaze-based metrics have been proven to be extremely effective with most ad and editorial formats in driving consumer response. Anyone who has heard me present ,knows that I highlight that there are other ways of measuring attention. They are not exclusively gaze-based and working at the conscious/rational level e.g. neuroscience, facial recognition and other emotion driven-approaches. Over the next few months as we build out the Attention Council, I expect to share more experimental work that quantifies the benefits of different approaches. When I present, I also stress that there is still a lot more work to do before attention becomes a "currency", but as Marc Guldimann says elsewhere on the site, please don't wait for perfection, there is still huge value to be gained from using the tools and data that are out there now.”
LeeBaring, Head of Investment, VCCP Media, on 12 Apr 2022
“Great article and I mostly agree. I would go a step further in System 1.

In what you described above, you don't need to have high attention to process a brand's message as this could still be effective on a subliminal level e.g. Audio.

That does however define a minimum level that is essential to any kind of effectiveness and that is simply that the ad must trigger one of the human senses for a certain period of time to ensure a memory structure is built.

Media must be seen, heard, felt, or even smelt to have an effect on System 1 and the more effective the media is at doing that then the stronger the memory structure that is built....

I think I made sense there.....great article nonetheless and one that prompted lots of thinking!”
MattHuntingford, Int. Sales Lead, Yahoo!, on 12 Apr 2022
“Good points, well made. Nice to see a bit of nuance brought to the attention debate.”

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