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Where Byron Sharp gets it wrong about attention

Where Byron Sharp gets it wrong about attention

You cannot champion the need for reach at all costs and ignore the importance of attention metrics.


With attention metrics gaining traction over the past few years, there should rightly be debate around their place in the future of communications planning. However, I was surprised by Professor Byron Sharp’s recent remarks at the Mi3-LinkedIn B2B Summit in which he ‘smashes attention metrics.’

His remarks don’t paint an accurate picture of attention metrics or their impact. In fact, attention metrics support some of Professor Sharp’s claims. Let’s look at two of them:

Real reach vs. a simple and inaccurate view of ‘Opportunity To See.’

“In short, reach everybody and be always on with advertising in order to grow.”

At their core attention metrics are a reach adjustment mechanic. You cannot champion the need for reach at all costs and ignore the importance of attention metrics.

For example, if you buy 1,000 impressions at a frequency cap of 1, you have technically ‘reached’ 1,000 people. But attention metrics tell us a different story. In digital display formats, 510 of those 1,000 impressions on average will not have an ‘opportunity to be seen’ (OTS) and less than 50% of the ads served will be on screen for less than 1 second. This means you have only really ‘reached’ 490 people.

Or have you? Likely not. Even though 490 of these placements gave an ‘OTS’, only 9% of your original 1,000 people ever look at the ad for more than 0.1 seconds. So, have I ‘reached’ 1,000 people or have I reached 90 people?

With reach being of fundamental and unquestionable importance, surely, we need to be clear on that.

The current definitions of reach are varied and flawed across media channels. Attention metrics give us a better understanding of real reach vs. a simple and inaccurate view of ‘Opportunity To See.’ Professor Sharp states the importance of advertising being seen, so I think we agree attention metrics have a role to play in quantifying a real exposure.

Even fleeting levels of attention can be valuable

“Our job is to get some attention. I don’t want to do advertising and not be seen. But after that, paying for a lot more [attention]? No.” 

Attention metrics help us avoid advertising placements that are likely not to be seen. In fact, the first application of attention metrics to media planning is to plan away from in-attention. Beyond this, there is also the question of duration of attention (seconds of attention): how long somebody on average looks at an ad.

As Professor Sharp states, attention is often fleeting. This is very true. Data from attention ad-tech firm Lumen Research suggests that visual attention (eyes on the ad) is usually in the range of 0-5 seconds, regardless of media. Very rarely do people watch an entire TV ad or read every detail of a display banner. A vanishingly small number of ads get more than 10 seconds attention.

Further studies conducted by Lumen Research and Amplified Intelligence across a wide range of categories and markets, suggest that lifts in measures like Brand Recall and Brand Choice or Short-Term Advertising Strength (STAS) can occur from very low levels of attention—even sub 1 second. More attention is usually better, but even fleeting levels of attention can be valuable. It’s about finding the right level of attention for a given brand trying to achieve a specific outcome.

In all the research I have been involved with, we have consistently observed significant diminishing returns for higher levels of active attention (beyond 5 seconds). Given the scarcity of media placements likely to generate that kind of attention, it’s possibly not worth the cost to pursue for most established brands. However, for new products, new brands (DTC for example) or complex messaging, there are strategies to consider in this emerging space.

Surely we can agree that some attention is a must-have?

Professor Sharp also states the importance of Mental Availability and its connection to attention. There is no debate here—I could not agree more.

Professor Karen Nelson Field’s research with OMD Worldwide suggested a link between what she calls Active Attention and Mental Availability growth. Her research, however, does suggest that in most cases there is a minimum amount of attention required to create or reinforce memory structures. Although Brand Recall and STAS can increase at very low levels of attention, there was no increase in Mental Availability under two seconds of Active Attention. Still, as thresholds go, this is a low bar to achieve.

What is clear is that there is no value to no attention. We have observed clear relationships between exposures that could be qualified as ‘unseen’ (no eye-gaze) and no uplifts in Brand Recall, Choice and STAS.

And that’s the major issue. As it is currently defined, ‘Reach’ delivers no attention. That is why these attention metrics are important: they help us buy better reach.

There’s more research to be done by brands on the right levels of attention needed, but surely, we can agree that some attention is a must-have?

I’d welcome a dialogue with Professor Sharp and the Ehrenberg Bass Institute to see how these metrics can be used to better qualify ‘reach’ and understand if that can tell us more about relative media channel effectiveness. Attention metrics are powerful and crucial to quantifying ‘real reach’.

Jon Waite is global managing director of Mx Development at Havas Media Group.  

Mats Rönne, Senior advisor, OffPist Management, on 07 Sep 2022
“We need to be more accurate. The word "impressions" implies that we are talking about a digital ad delivery. That also means that we ard making the most fundamental - but all too common - mistake of not separating the three media universes, those of people vs screens vs accounts. To put it simply, impression means delivery to a screen. Viewability/in screen is one challenge, but equally mportant is the conversion from screens (distribution) to people (reception).”

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