Attention pays: the economy of attention in advertising

In many ways, advertisers have never had it so good. Now more than ever, there are ever-increasing channels, mediums and formats through which to reach consumers. Digital metrics provide instant reads on performance. Owned social media channels enable different creative executions to be A/B tested in the real world. 

The options for creativity, measurement and experimentation are endless. However, Ben Murrell, Head of Ad Research at Trinity McQueen, considers why it’s getting more difficult to get cut through, especially when both money and attention are in short supply.

For an advertiser trying to navigate the current consumer landscape, it seems that every few months, a new international crisis comes storming into the picture to disrupt and reassemble what we know to be an effective approach. Despite the tools and technologies at our disposal, it’s clear that, now more than ever, brands really need to fight to gain the attention of uncertain and apprehensive consumers. 

When money is short, and attention is shorter, how will you cut through the noise?

Attention is hard won, and getting eyeballs on your content is increasingly elusive. In the current state of affairs, it’s not our financial economy that dictates consumer behaviour but the attention economy. 

Attention ‘economics’ treats human attention as a scarce commodity and applies economic theory to solve various problems at a macro level.  Attention is the “bottleneck of human thought,” limiting both what we can perceive in stimulating environments and what we can do: “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

“Information is not scarce, attention is,” Michael Goldhaber, writer of The American Lawyer

However, at the micro level, we might flip this phrase and talk about the Economy of Attention.  In advertising testing, we have to tackle the fact that consumers are becoming increasingly adept at applying an economy of attention to advertising per se.  They are economising their attention; they are not so much choosing where to spend the currency of attention as actively resisting expending any wherever possible.  As Taylor & Fiske first pointed out, they are in fact cognitive misers.

So when consumers are becoming increasingly frugal with both their minds and their wallet, advertisers face a significant challenge.  In order to cut through and make a mark in such a densely competitive and precarious environment, advertisers need to ensure that they have taken every necessary step to ensure that their content is optimised to grasp attention, straight away.

Our Ad Optimisation programmes help clients make their ads as effective as they can possibly be.  We test hundreds of ads each year and we started to notice some patterns in the test results.  Anecdotally, we started to observe that adverts that were scoring low on our attention metrics tended to go on to score poorly across all the final metrics.  So we asked the London School of Economics (LSE) if they could take a deep dive into our archive and properly examine the data and test the hypothesis.

In order to explain what they were actually looking at, we need to quickly summarise how we approach our ad optimisation process.

We have brought together the most effective tools for forensically analysing advertising and created our Media Analyser Platform. This platform allows clients to play back a video ad (TV or social) and see moment by moment what is engaging viewers, what is causing confusion or rejection, what is getting noticed, where and why they have commented on specific elements within the edit, whether the attention is caught from the offset and more.  The tailor-made platform allows us to plug in dial testing, implicit testing, prediction markets and peak-end theory, as well as artificial intelligence (AI)-powered predictive noticeability.

We measure our ads against six key metrics, for which we have an internal mnemonic called BEACON.  The metrics cover Brand Associations, Engagement & Emotion, Attention, Credibility/Plausibility, Optimism (of third parties) and Nailing the campaign message.

So, to elaborate on the task we set the LSE; we asked them to look at possible correlation between the Attention scores and the final array of metrics across BEACON.

In video advertising (TV or social), the attention measurement is arrived at by looking at the ascent or descent ratio over the first three seconds of an ad.  We chose three seconds because anecdotally we felt this was long enough for people to have responded reflexively to or away from an ad.  Put another way, within three seconds you were either ‘in or out’ cognitively (“advertising” is derived from the Latin advertere –  literally “to turn toward”  –  incidentally).

The results were convincing.  Of all the adverts that they analysed from our archive they found that 72% showed strong correlation between attention and the final performance metrics.

This was broken down further as follows: 27% of the archive showed positive attention scores and went on to perform well across all metrics, while 45% showed negative attention scores and went on to perform poorly across all metrics.  Furthermore, after just three seconds that was a 10% point difference in the average engagement score of the best and worst-performing ads.

The conclusion was clear and persuasive: if ads were not scoring well on the attention metric, then the probability was that however good their creative idea, the ad would score poorly across most – if not all – metrics.

Whilst this particular study looked only at TV advertising, our examination of attention importance spans across our archive of radio, digital audio (Spotify/Apple), print and out-of-home (OOH), cinema, and in-store and social media/digital ads.  In all cases, the connection is clear. Initial attention is paramount to making a genuine impact on consumers. Right now, there are numerous factors working against advertisers. The current financial strain upon society means that now more than ever, brand loyalty is set to be thoroughly tested. The only way advertisers can cut through and make an impact, is to test their content with the right methods.

To get your ads in the best possible position to grasp the attention they deserve, contact us today.