‘What we know will humble the industry’ – the rise of the attention specialists

‘What we know will humble the industry’ – the rise of the attention specialists

As established forms of audience measurement continue to be called into question, will attention specialists move to the centre of the industry’s attention?

A wealth of information implies a poverty of attention. – Herbert Simon

How do you measure the effectiveness of an ad? It’s the question that has plagued media buyers for years, and increasingly caused headaches as old systems of measurement erode.

Media fragmentation, the rise in popularity of streaming, and increasing scepticism of old paradigms of audience measurement are part of what’s driving the need for new metrics.

Nielsen’s purchase by a private equity group occurred as the company’s once-heralded measurement methodology has been called into question – the Media Rating Council suspended Nielsen’s accreditation last September.

In the digital realm, a host of privacy regulations – induced by both the public and private companies like Apple – has meant that tracking and understanding individual identities no longer work as they used to, nor should they, it is argued, if companies want to take individuals’ privacy seriously.

Digital advertisers are therefore seeking new ways to measure by whom and for how long advertisements are being seen.

In both TV and digital, attention metrics are, well, receiving more and more attention – The Media Leader itself publishes a regular column on attention and the future of media measurement by Professor Karen Nelson-Field, as well as featuring regular comment from Lumen Research founder Mike Follett and Adelaide founder Marc Guldimann.

In October, Nelson-Field wrote: “55% [of brands and agencies] said they are evaluating media quality using attention metrics, compared to 40% a year ago. More impressively, three times the number of respondents said they are now actually buying or optimising against attention (7% in 2020 to 24% in 2021).”

Just this month, Dentsu UK&Ireland, in collaboration with Lumen Research, launched the Effective Attention Forecasting tool to help marketers predict campaign performance using attention metrics.

How should we perceive attention metrics?

A debate has sprung up between leaders in the field over how to classify attention metrics – are they a new currency, or something else?

Nelson-Field, for instance, argued for taking care to construct attention metrics as a new currency, lest old mistakes be repeated, while Guldimann wrote that the market will decide attention’s currency status, and to not be afraid of potential inefficiencies given that there’s significant arbitrage available in the market today.

Jon Evans, chief growth officer at ad effectiveness agency System1, sees attention as both a commodity and a currency, while Lumen’s Follett doesn’t see attention as a currency but rather as trading information that will, as Guldimann described, help media buyers find bargains.

While much of the debate focuses on semantics on what a ‘currency’ is, the players share a conviction that attention metrics will become increasingly important to marketers as a core component of their strategies moving forward.

But just because more brands and agencies are evaluating media quality using attention metrics does not mean that legacy metrics will go away. Audience metrics from Nielsen and its growing list of competitors, such as Comscore, iSpot.tv and VideoAmp, will always be an important aspect of measurement for advertisers, as Guldimann admits.

“Nielsen and others are focused on who you’re reaching. We’re focused on how you’re reaching them,” he says.

This “how” focus had been disregarded as unnecessary before, as Guldimann explains: “In the old world, that was okay because there were only like a dozen ad formats. But now there can be a dozen ad formats on a single online page.”

Guldimann and Follett both see their companies more as compliments to Nielsen and its competitors, so ad buyers can merge the “who” and the “how”.

Attention metrics are “icing on the cake,” says Follett.

He adds: “It is immensely valuable trading information – we are the Standard and Poor’s or Moody’s to the Nielsen et al’s central bank. We’re getting attention ‘alpha’ [a finance term for a measure of performance] to help the buy-side find where the bargains are in advertising.”

‘Advertisers would do well to go on the same journey as Buzz Lightyear’

Though there’s clearly room for growth in understanding the effects of attention, Follett described how what researchers already know will humble advertisers.

He believes that attention metrics will be the intellectual scandal that will lead to a new industry paradigm around measurement.

“This is a deeply radical dataset because it fundamentally challenges the industry,” he said.

“I think it has a Toy Story element. Advertisers would do well to go on the same journey as Buzz Lightyear in his realisation that he’s actually a toy. What they do is important, but they are not why people read a magazine.”

Rather than “changing hearts and minds”, or how some advertisers like to conceptualise the effectiveness of ads, Follett argues that attention metrics have told us that “advertising works on the same model as a sea erodes a cliff.”

“From our attention data, no one looks at an ad and then goes and buys the item.”

That doesn’t mean that ads aren’t effective or don’t draw attention, but that they are received subjectively, and require good creative, priming, and long-term strategy beyond drawing eyeballs.

As Evans notes: “The sad reality is that around half of all advertising has no long-term impact, suggesting a missed opportunity for brands and a waste of ad dollars.”

Follett spoke in further metaphors, stating that rather than an ad being like Luke Skywalker shooting into the exact right place at the exact right time to “blow up the Death Star into bags of kitten food”, advertising is more like a daffodil, spreading its seeds wide and hoping to find fertile ground over time. “It’s much more Parable of the Sower than current advertising firms like to think it is”.

“We are teaching the industry quite a lot about humility, in both how advertising works, and its place in the media industry.”

But while attention research has become increasingly robust (and therefore useful), Follett says there’s still much that we don’t know and much more to learn.

“We must be modest.” Follett (pictured, above) says. “We’re better than no predictions at all, and we’re better than the assumption that viewability is the same thing as an actual view, but there’s still so much that we don’t know.”

Whereas attention has been found to be moderately predictable, Follett notes that perception is less predictable, and more research needs to be done to understand not just how someone may be drawn to look at an advertisement (and for how long), but also what they take away from the advertisement about a brand, and how priming, targeting, and creative fits into the equation.

Evans adds: “Eye-tracking technology can provide another layer of data for advertisers who test their ads, but it’s important to consider the amount of weight given to this information. While eye-tracking notes how viewers’ attention shifts and signals the parts of an ad that might be most engaging or memorable, understanding the emotion that viewers assign to these different elements is also crucial.

“This is because our eyes might navigate to elements of an ad that actually make us feel anger or disgust, which can negatively impact brand recognition and loyalty.

“We don’t believe advertisers should guess. Rather they need to test.”

Evans advocates for companies to couple eye-tracking tech with a deeper level of survey research on the emotional impact of their advertisements.

But regardless, focusing on attention metrics is a clear step in the right direction for the industry, argues Follett:

“I don’t know that Lumen’s predictions are 100% right, but I know that the current industry’s are 100% wrong.”

Attention isn’t everything

Companies like Adelaide, Lumen, and System1 put forth that earlier forms of measurement are both more intrusive of individuals’ privacy while also being less precise – after all, just because someone clicks into a website or has the TV turned on doesn’t mean that ads are drawing their notice.

“There are two ways [attention metrics] are very good for consumers: It creates incentives for higher quality advertising experiences, and we mitigate the need for invasive technology,” says Guldimann.

But he notes that it is important that attention is not the only metric companies optimise for.

“The issue with ‘get more attention’ from a programmatic view is that they’re optimising only for attention, which can lead to a bad user experience filled with poor ads. Meanwhile creative also gets weird if you maximise for attention, leading to awkward advertisements.”

Evans noted that attention is only part of the puzzle, and that creative remains king.

“Attention is what we’re competing for as an industry. Competing for eyes, for sales, for loyalty is the nature of the game. But that’s only half of the argument and leaves out the fact that various studies have demonstrated that creativity is actually the number one driver of ad effectiveness that a brand can actually control.

“Creative ads that leverage right-brain features like characters, melodic music, and a clear sense of place are more likely to elicit positive emotions and capture attention – both in the short term and long term. You must therefore consider creativity’s impact on emotion and attention.”

Guldimann recommends that you use attention as an input for your inventory, but have your algorithm optimise to your business outcome. “Ultimately, everything should be in service of what’s best for your business. Attention should be one aspect of that consideration”.

Privacy and ethical concerns

Regarding privacy, proponents of attention metrics say it has a clear ‘leg up’ on previous forms of measurement.

Lumen, Adelaide, and System1 only create attention metrics from eye-tracking data and additional data from individuals who have opted-in to their research. Guldimann in particular expressed strong disdain for other modes of measurement that use attribution technology to track individuals.

From their dataset of opt-ins, they then incorporate other data to build predictive models that create averages of expected response to different types and placements of ads.

“There are certainly concerns with eye-tracking that the technology is in control, rather than the viewer. In fact, some eye-tracking software has become so sophisticated that it will pause ads if it notes a person’s gaze has left the frame of their phone,” says Evans.

“Attention measurement should aim to be as authentic as possible, without forcing attention on a viewer, in order to get the most accurate results.”

But other ethical questions are at play, as they always will be in advertising. Eye-tracking technology accesses psychologies of subconscious behaviour better than earlier measurements, which can have large impacts.

As an analogous example, Facebook came under intense scrutiny last year for optimising their platform for maximum engagement at the expense of other considerations, such as user safety.

By choosing to maintain users’ attention, measured through engagement (e.g. emoji reactions), Facebook deprioritised initiatives to reduce harmful misinformation and radicalisation, implicating the company in the spread of outlandish conspiracy theories such as QAnon, and incitement of genocide.

Could using attention metrics have the same effect?

Follett notes that responsible use of attention data is an important consideration for advertisers and publishers alike, but that as data providers themselves, they are ethically neutral beyond their commitments to privacy protection in their research.

“The onus is on the [advertiser or publisher] to act morally with our data. All communication is manipulative to an extent. It tries to persuade. And you can do that to good ends or bad ends.”

But an abdication of moral responsibility on behalf of the data suppliers does not mean that there is no responsibility to be considered, and publishers will have to grapple with how to balance business incentives with ethical use of the technology.

An ‘ecology of attention’ is needed

While advertising is where the money is made, the content that draws individuals to advertisements is where people are really spending their time.

“Advertising is the loaning of attention,” says Guldimann.

Evans adds: “Understanding how to not only capture attention — but retain it —  will be increasingly key as media creators everywhere, such as the Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulus of the world, compete for subscribers and viewers.

“Creatively effective ads benefit both advertisers and media platforms because engaging ads keep viewers from switching to another channel or platform. Thus, it’s in these media owners’ best interest to understand how creativity drives emotion and attention, so that they can help advertisers make effective ads and support viewer engagement.”

“They’d be missing a big opportunity if they didn’t concern themselves with tactics meant to capture their audiences.”

Follett noted that Lumen works with publishers as well as advertisers.

“We build predictive models of attention to everything, of which advertising is just one part”.

He stated that the focus should not be on an economy of attention, but an ecology of attention.

“Editorial and advertising must be symbiotic – there needs to be a healthy balance. Attention metrics can help with that.”

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