Attention pays: the economy of attention in advertising

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Trinity McQueen considers the attention economy and suggests ways marketers can make the most of changes to attention span

In many ways advertisers have never had it so good. 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 Paul Barrow, director of strategic partnerships at Trinity McQueen, considers why it’s getting more difficult to get cut through.

Attention is harder won, and getting eyeballs on your content is increasingly elusive.

There are two ways we can look at this phenomenon; the macro and the micro.

At the macro level economists talk about 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

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 economizing 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.

At Trinity McQueen we run an Ad Optimization program where we help clients make their ads as effective as they possibly can 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 summarize how we approach our ad optimization process.

At Trinity McQueen we have brought together the most effective tools for forensically analyzing advertising and created our Media Analyser Platform. The Media Analyser allows clients to play back a video ad (TV or digital) 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 digital), the attention measurement is arrived at by looking at the ascent or descent ration 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 Italian Ad Vertare – to turn toward incidentally).

The results were convincing. Of all the adverts that they analyzed 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 clients 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.

TV advertising is only the first category of ads that we are looking at. We are now going to move on and examine the importance of attention across our archive on radio and digital audio (Spotify/Apple), print and out-of-home (OOH), cinema, in-store and social media/digital ads.