Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Adam Chugg: The perils and pitfalls of optimising for attention

Adam Chugg, Head of Big Tech Activations at the7stars and NDA’s monthly columnist.

Barely a week goes by without news surrounding the emergence of attention as a metric. Two pieces that caught my attention recently (sorry) were Mark Ritson’s article ‘Pay attention to Attention’ in Marketing Week and the IAB Australia’s ‘Attention Measurement Landscape’ report. Both provided essential reading, highlighting the complexity of using and interpreting attention measurement, as well as some of the divergence of opinion on the subject.

Ritson’s article is written in response to Byron Sharp’s belief that advertisers should not pay for more attention. Instead, Ritson pitches the evidence from numerous studies that prove dwell time has a significant multiplying effect on business outcomes. But he also provides a balanced perspective with regards to attention versus claimed reach.

Our number one priority should be making sure people see ads and there’s a clear benefit in making sure they look at them longer. No one could disagree with this. The biggest risk to advertisers comes from the crude implementation of attention measurement on the promise of eliminating wastage.

This is where the IAB’s report comes into play, setting out the need to consider attention as a part of the broader toolkit of measurement and metrics and its influence on other metrics and business outcomes should be at the centre of controlled experimentation.

Both articles got me thinking about the key pitfalls that advertiser’s need to be aware of when starting to implement attention into the measurement mix, and the value that agencies play in this:

There are different types of attention and no shared standards

The industry has yet to agree on shared standards.  So if you’ve already started to measure attention in some way, and you’ve set yourself an arbitrary target for future media buys, this would set alarm bells ringing. Attention changes down the consumer funnel and different types of attention contribute towards different brand aims and briefs. Planners need to find the right balance and not prioritise active attention over passive.

Optimising towards greater attention is risky

The reason diving into optimising towards greater attention is risky is because it’s nuanced – by strategy, channel, platform, format and assets. Choosing to invest more heavily in one channel or platform over another, due to attention measurement, would be particularly short sighted. But I can see it happening.

Again, learning about causation via experimentation is important. A particular placement might be reporting particularly low attention – but is it the placement or creative that is responsible? Only a controlled experiment can tell you this.

Don’t underestimate passive fixation

Riston makes a point in his article that “Clearly, some advertising can work with the barest flash of fixation. But extending that attention to include dwell time also has significant ramifications.” This got me thinking more about passive attention and how advertising works on the subconscious level, particularly with reference to the “exposure effect”.

The exposure effect is a behavioural bias examined in Daniel Kahnaman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, the premise being that mere consistent exposure to something increases favourability. What’s more is that this exposure doesn’t even have to be actively acknowledged and its impact can occur in less than a second. You don’t even know you’ve been exposed.

Beware who is selling the solution and their incentive in doing so

There is no shortage of companies that would readily offer attention-focused solutions but their solutions and view of attention is likely to be just too narrow. Often this is found in the most vociferous advocates.

I think about attention in this moment in the same way as last click measurement and attribution. Remember when people used to speak of the “holy grail” of multi-touch attribution and the promise of eliminating wastage?

In fact, remember when Google just did search advertising and the big sell was how accountable it was? Of course, we know how short-sighted this view is now, much to Google’s dismay, who have been trying to undo their early work of addicting the industry to last click attribution and advertising accountability.

The way forward

As with everything in our industry, the picture is complex and, more than ever, brand’s need objective consultants (who they can really trust to be objective…) to help them navigate the space. The worst thing that a brand can do is to crudely grab and implement “the new thing” in the wrong way.

Ask questions of the data – utilise attention measurement where you can but be considerate about the results. Ask questions of the data and think of the reasons why particular placements might be suffering from lower attention. Importantly, go back to your brand’s objectives, the role of the channel or platform and user behaviour.

This will formulate the basis for experimentation.

Observe alongside other metrics – look at how attention measurement stacks up against other KPIs you’ve traditionally used to assess performance. Can you observe a correlation between attention and these other metrics?

Set up controlled experiments – Ultimately, you’ll want to find out whether optimising towards greater attention has a causal impact on marketing and business objectives. You’ll want to see what optimising towards attention does to shift brand metrics or performance efficiency.

Don’t make attention a primary objective – even if you’ve proven the positive impact optimising towards attention can have, don’t lose sight of your business goals. The easiest way of improving attention would be to limit targeting to users in-market and those very familiar with your brand – those most likely to pay attention to you… Like optimising towards ROI, this would limit your potential for growth. This is where the balance between reach and attention needs more consideration.

Don’t forget the creative – and don’t make judgements on long term investments into particular channels or placements based on testing with a narrow set of creative, especially when it’s not optimised for those environments.

Brands are certain to benefit hugely from integrating attention metrics into their broader measurement toolkit. As with attribution before it, It’s important that we don’t get caught up in the promise of using it to eradicate wastage.