The Challenge of Attention
The Challenge of Attention
by Martin Vinter
Managing Director, Ebiquity Media
For more than ten years now, the sheer scale and volume of media available to advertisers has been proliferating. Digital technologies and platforms mean that consumer choice about how, where, and when they consume media content has exploded and so fragmented.
It is no longer possible to reach mass audiences at scale simply by running a TV ad campaign. As a result, many now characterise modern marketing as an attention economy, a multimedia competition for consumer eyeballs. The locus of control has also shifted away from media owners, with the growing ability of consumers to block and skip ads or subscribe to content delivered in ad-free environments.
In his book To Sell Is Human, the American business writer Dan Pink says that we are all “in the moving business” – the business of persuading others to take action.
In marketing communications, brands are looking to identify and target customers with commercial messages that trigger a response.
The challenge facing advertisers in the increasingly-digital marketing ecosystem is capturing and holding consumers’ attention: if they aren’t attracted to and don’t attend to an ad, there’s no way they can be persuaded to do anything.
And yet until recently, the role of attention rarely featured in how advertising impact was measured. For too long, the industry has been focused on performance metrics like impressions or CPM.
Thankfully, this has started to change. Advertisers, their agencies, and their analytics partners are all motivated by a shared desire to ensure that brands’ marketing investments deliver optimal return. The importance of both channel-discrete and holistic ad investment attention paid to advertising is gaining momentum across the industry.
At last this is helping to move attention from an impractical nice-to-have to a core component of marketing analytics that is both tangible and actionable.
At Ebiquity, we are world leaders in media investment analysis. We have partnered with Lumen Research, the undisputed experts in measuring consumer attention in digital advertising. Together we are now publishing this state-of-the-art report on how to include meaningful measures of attention in advertising effectiveness models.
In the report, Lumen’s founder and MD Mike Follett shows how, for the first time, we are bringing together Ebiquity cost data, Lumen data on attention to digital advertising, and TVision data on attention to TV, to create a new, composite metric.
By combining the average likelihood that someone will view a particular type of ad and the average time they spend looking at the ad, we’ve created the first true advertising attention currency: attentive seconds per thousand impressions.
As attention differs across different media, this allows us to compare the cost and impact of different media, including TV, digital video, and digital display.
This new measure is an important and practical development in meaningful cross media measurement.
We’re not claiming – quite yet – that it’s the definitive answer to this complex problem. But by factoring in whether and for how long consumers pay active attention to the ads served to them, we are making progress on a path towards comparative media measurement that’s truly fit-for-purpose.
We trust you find this report and this new metric a helpful contribution in this rapidly-evolving debate.
At Ebiquity, we are world leaders in media investment analysis. We have partnered with Lumen Research, the undisputed experts in measuring consumer attention in digital advertising.”
Martin Vinter, MD Ebiquity Media
Mike Follett, MD Lumen Research
1. What is attention?
Attention is selective, finite, and voluntary – three characteristics with big implications for advertisers
William James’ definition of attention (right) may be over 130 years old, but it has many merits.
Firstly, it assumes selection. When we talk about attention, we are usually talking about selective attention. Think of the game I-spy. When a child says ‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with C’, the assumption is that there is a scene crowded with ’several simultaneously possible’ things you could attend to, only some of which are designated by a word beginning with the letter C and only one of which is a cat. Attention is like that. It is a choice between options.
Secondly, it assumes attention is finite. We have enough cognitive resources to concentrate on one thing or another but rarely both at the same time. Sometimes we don’t concentrate on anything at all – but this not a normal or pleasant situation. In the very next sentence, James says that the concept of attention “implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatter-brained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German”. Attention is a finite resource, that gets used up by the process of attending to things, as Daniel Kahneman was to develop in Attention and Effort (1973).
Thirdly, it assumes a (voluntary) process. You notice something and then you focus or concentrate on it, investing as much attention as required to make sense of the scene in a ‘clear and vivid form’. The ‘spotlight’ passes over something – a shape, a sound, an ad for offer that must end on Tuesday – and then doubles back, narrowing its focus to concentrate its beam on what it wants to attend to. But what gets looked at depends on your purposes, aims, and beliefs.
Everyone knows what attention is. Attention is the taking possession of the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalisations, concentration of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.
WILLIAM JAMES, THE FATHER OF MODERN PSYCHOLOGY
Building on James’ initial insight, researchers including Anne Triesman and Richard Gregory have suggested that people navigate the world via a process of ‘attentional satisficing’. You can’t look at everything so you have to come up with a shortcut for deploying limited attentional resources.
People don't read ads. They read what they want. And sometimes it's an ad.
HOWARD LUCK GOSSAGE, THE SAGE OF SAN FRANCISCO
People either have a ‘pre-attentional’ stage, that fits very loosely-defined stimuli together to see if there is a pattern worth attending to properly given the current situation (Triesman’s FIT model) or else they are constantly guessing what is probably out there and then investing attention to confirm their hypotheses (Gregory’s ‘perceptions are hypotheses’ model).
Either way, our minds are not a blank slate, waiting passively to receive information from the outside world, but are actively-involved agents, choosing to attend to things based on our current aims and intentions. Attention and intention are close bedfellows. James’ definition of attention is very useful to advertisers. The concept of selective attention helps us understand that just because something is viewable it doesn’t mean that it will get viewed.
Most people ignore most things most of the time – including ads – so it’s important to measure what people actually look at, not just what they had the ‘opportunity to see’.
Advertisers could also benefit from understanding that attention is a finite resource, that has to be earned rather than assumed.
Many languages adopt an economic metaphor to conceptualise attention: you “pay” attention, or “earn” attention. If you are not careful, you will “waste” people’s time. Ads have to compete for this scarce resource – and they better be “worth” it.
Finally, the intentional model of attention helps us understand how and why people attend to the things they do – and ignore the rest. It is important to remember that consumers are in charge of their own attention, thank you very much. No one has to look at your advertising, and frequently they don’t (section 12 discusses quite how much – or how little – attention actually goes to advertising). It matters where and when you talk to them, what sort of mood they are in, and how relevant or useful your message is to them.
Howard Luck Gossage, the ‘Sage of San Francisco’, had it right when he said: “People don’t read ads. They read what they want. And sometimes it’s an ad.” Attention is selective. It is finite. And it is, to a great extent, voluntary. Understanding the reality of attention will help us buy better media in the short term and be better marketers in the long term.
ECONOMIC METAPHORS OF ATTENTION
Many languages use imagery that assumes attention is a commodity that can be given, traded, loaned or even sold:
- German = Aufmerksamkeit schenken (Gift attention)
- Italian = Prestare attenzione (Lend attention)
- Spanish = Prestar atención (Lend attention)
- Irish = Tabhair aire (Give attention)
- Hindi = ध्यान देना (Give focus / attention / concentration)
- Punjabi = ਧਿਆਨ ਦੇਣ (Give attention)
- Bengali = মনোযোগ দেওয়া (Give mind)
- Nepali = ध्यान देउ (Give focus / attention / concentration)
- English = Pay attention
The etymology of both the words we use in English to describe the phenomenon of attention contain a ‘commodity’ metaphor:
- Attention: from the Old French, which is itself from the Latin, ad tendere, to reach out and grasp (something)
- Behold: from the Old English, bi haldan, to have (something) in your hands
2. Measuring attention
Eye tracking as an outward sign of an inward state
Attention is important, so how do we measure it? If we accept William James’ definition of attention, then this is harder than you might first think. Attention is, after all, something that goes on inside people’s heads.
To answer this question, Google recently commissioned the Ehrenberg Bass Institute to evaluate a number of different ways of measuring attention, from simple self-reported questionnaires to facial coding, head tracking, eye tracking, and all the way to approaches using brain-scanning technologies such as EEG and MRI.
Their conclusions, presented at the ARF Audience x Science conference in 2018, was that eye tracking and to an extent, head tracking (we’ll come on to the distinction between these two in the next section) were the most reliable and accessible means of estimating attention to advertising available.
Eye tracking is a good way of measuring attention because eyes are (a) important and (b) easy to measure. Our eyes are the most important sense organ we have, with 40% of our brain dedicated to vision.
Secondly, the eyes are the easiest of the senses to measure consistently and quantitatively. Most other senses ‘happen’ exclusively in the mind. It is hard to assess what people are hearing, feeling with touch, or smelling without asking them to tell us what they think they are experiencing.
Sight, too, ‘happens’ in the brain, but the movements of the eyes can be captured by external observation in a way that is currently impossible for sound, taste, touch, or smell. You can track eyes in a way that you can’t track the inner ear.
Our eyes are the most important sense organ we have, with 40% of our brain dedicated to vision.
This is not to say that eye tracking is a perfect measure of attention. Sound is very important – ads can work very well on radio, or when the sound of a TV ad is playing in the background. Sensory data are composite: attending to sounds and pictures at the same time can result in greater memory encoding than one or other on its own. Finally, the eyes are not always a window to the soul: it is possible to stare blankly at a screen or a page without taking anything in.
But despite these limitations, Google still concluded that visual engagement – as measured by eye tracking or head tracking – is a good-enough proxy for measuring attention to visual advertising; not perfect, but a good start.
SCANNING FOR STIMULI WORTHY OF ATTENTION
How Lumen and TVision measure attention
3. How Lumen & TVision measure attention
Collecting naturalistic attention data at scale
The attention data in this booklet has been collected in two slightly different ways.
The TV attention data has been collected by TVision in the US. TVision has recruited a panel of 5,000 US households who are asked to install a camera on top of their main TV and set up an accompanying recording box.
Once installed, their system records when people enter the room and, crucially, whether or not their heads are turned towards the screen. They even record how long people look at the screen: if their heads are in the same position for too long, their system assumes that the panellist has fallen asleep. The box attached to the screen records what was on the screen – what channel, what show, what ad, and so on. They can then understand how much visual attention was directed towards whatever was on the screen at the time.
The digital advertising data comes from Lumen. Lumen has recruited a thousand-strong panel in the UK.
The panellists install software that turns the webcams on their computers and phones into high-quality eye tracking cameras. The software also records what ads were shown on the screen, in what location, and for how long. It then uses this information to calculate which were viewable, which ads were viewed (a big difference), and for how long they were viewed.
The systems used by the two companies are slightly different, but comparable. TVision’s data is, technically speaking, head tracking rather than eye tracking; it measures when people’s heads are turned towards the TV. But given that TV ads take up 100% of the space of the screen, if you’re looking at the screen when an ad is on, then you’re looking at the ad. Things are more complicated online, when both advertising and editorial content can be on the screen simultaneously. This is why we need to use eye tracking for these environments.
Both TVision and Lumen take data quality and data privacy very seriously. Panels are recruited to be nationally representative, with the appropriate mix of genders, ages, and ethnicities. Panellists are fully informed and properly incentivised for their time and involvement. No personally identifiable information is collected or retained and no respondent-level data is ever released. By design, neither company has the ability to store or upload any video from any of their panellists. In both cases, all the data processing is done locally on the panellists’ machines, with only summarised lines of data uploaded. TVision hardware is made of components that have been certified by the US Federal Communications Commission.
Lumen has recruited a thousand-strong panel in the UK.”
4. The Attention Funnel
From what could be seen to what is seen - and for how long
The data that both Lumen and TVision collect can be conceptualised as a funnel, which is a somewhat simplified form of the ARF’s Model for Evaluating Media methodology.
Attention is thought to flow from top to bottom; from what people could see (whether it is technically viewable or not) to what people do, in fact, look at, and for how long they actually look at it.
At the top of the funnel is what people could see: was the ad served on the screen? After all, you can’t look at something that isn’t there. We count the ad as being on the screen even if only one pixel is viewable for less than a second.
Next, it’s worth thinking about which ads are technically viewable, according to the Media Ratings Council (MRC) standards. A digital display ad is deemed to be viewable if at least 50% of the pixels of the ad are available to be seen for one second or more, or two seconds-plus for digital video advertising. According to BARB – the audience ratings organisation for TV in the UK – someone has to be in the room and ‘available to view the ad’, without a minimum time requirement.
However, it’s important that we appreciate that ‘technical viewability’ is a man-made standard. It defines a minimum threshold: if your ad doesn’t achieve this level of viewability, then it doesn’t count (and, under certain trading deals, you don’t have to pay for it). And because it’s man-made, it’s a bit arbitrary: why 50% of the pixels and not 37%, say? Why two seconds of video time and not 3.1 seconds? Or 10% of the run time? Or something else entirely? We have included it in the following charts for reference purposes, but as we will see, ‘technical viewability’ has only a tangential connection with actual viewing.
Next, we come to actual attention itself: not just the opportunity to see an ad, but actual viewing. Lumen defines an ad as viewed if it receives a single eye fixation on the pixels of the ad. ‘Fixations’ can be variously defined and are in their own way almost as arbitrary as viewability standards. The way we define fixations assumes that they occur 3-4 times a second.
Crucially, this means that people can look at ads even if they are not technically viewable by MRC standards. For instance, only 49% of the pixels might be peaking up ‘over the fold’ – not enough to be technically viewable, but sometimes enough to get looked at. Or the whole ad might be on the screen, but not for the requisite two seconds; it might get looked at even if it doesn’t count as a viewable ad, technically speaking. And, equally crucially, it means that many ads that are fully viewable according to the MRC don’t actually get viewed. Your ad may have been technically viewable, but people may have politely declined the ‘opportunity to see’ it.
But seeing the ad at all is only half the story. The next important piece of information is how long people look at the ads for: the eyes-on dwell time.
This does not need to be continuous. You can look at the first two seconds of an ad, look away, and then look at the last two seconds and we will record the attention as being four seconds in total.
The data from the panels is all collected on an individual basis, but reported as mean scores. Ads of a certain type or format, or on a certain platform or domain, will have a greater or lesser chance of being viewed, and their dwell time is averaged. There is considerable variance in how long ads are engaged with. Some people will merely glance at an ad, while others will invest a lot of time in the same ad. But for simplicity’s sake, we take a mean.
Finally, we can create a composite metric that combines both the average likelihood that someone will view a particular type of ad and the average time that they spend looking at the ad. We call it ‘attentive seconds per thousand impressions’.
ATTENTIVE SECONDS PER 1000 IMPRESSIONS
Without considering imponderables like fraudulent or non-human traffic ads in our calculations for now, let’s imagine 1,000 impressions served to a screen. Of these thousand ads, how many get looked at – whether they are technically viewable or not? And what is their average eyes-on dwell time? If you multiply one number by the other, you get the average aggregate attention produced by 1,000 ad impressions served to a screen – a unit of analysis that is consistent across TV, mobile, and desktop advertising. At the end of the attention funnel we have a single unit to measure and quantify attention – the essence of advertising.
5. Attention differences across media
Using ‘attentive seconds per 1,000 impressions’ to compare the impact of different media opportunities
It is notoriously difficult to compare the relative efficacy of different advertising inventory. The different currencies employed by the industry can mean that too often you end up comparing apples with oranges. We can use the attention funnel approach to compare the ability of each media to persuade people to look at advertising at all, and how good they are at holding people’s attention. This allows us to compare apples with apples.
ATTENTIVE SECONDS PER 1000 IMPRESSIONS CALCULATION
As previously noted, in general there’s a big difference between what people could see and what they do, in fact, end up looking at. And there are big differences across different media, too.
From the TV data, we can see that far more people get to the end of a 30-sec TV ad.
In the first place, we can apply the MRC viewability standards (arbitrary as they are) consistently across all the media under review. We can see that not all TV ads are viewable. Yes, they appear on the screen, but sometimes there’s no one in the room to watch them – or those in the room have fallen asleep. TVision estimate that 74% of 30-second TV ads play out to someone in the room – meaning that 26% play out to empty rooms. It should be noted that in the UK, the TV ratings body BARB says that it takes into account when people are or aren’t in the room via its people meters, but it’s interesting to see the US data in the light of TVision’s insights. Again, just because an ad is viewable doesn’t mean that it will be viewed. Someone can be in the room while an ad is playing out, but it doesn’t mean that they are definitely looking. In fact, only 43% of 30-second TV ads get looked at. People may be in the room, but they may be checking out their phone, reading the paper, talking to loved ones, or getting the kids ready for school.
Almost all YouTube ads are viewable, and the vast majority of them get some attention.
Interestingly, when it comes to social media, many ads fail to meet the stringent MRC viewability standards, but do get some attention, leading to an interesting anomaly where viewing rates are higher than technical viewability rates.
Bringing up the rear of the chart, the desktop and mobile web data shows us the reverse: if ads are viewable to MRC standards, that is no guarantee that they will get viewed.
TECHNICAL VIEWABILITY (MRC STANDARDS)
AVERAGE EYES-ON DWELL TIME
Next, we can look at how long people look at ads for. Here we can see that if people look at TV ads, they tend to look at them for a long time, relatively speaking: a 30-second TV ad will generate around 13.8 seconds of eyes-on dwell time, on average.
Within this average, some people watch the whole 30 seconds of the ad, others only glance at it for a couple of seconds, and there’s a wide distribution of viewing behaviour in between. But for simplicity’s sake, we use the mean average as a benchmark.
On average, eyes-on dwell time with 15 second unskippable YouTube ads is 4.9 seconds.
A 15-second YouTube ad will not get watched for the 15 seconds. On average, eyes-on dwell time with 15-second unskippable YouTube ads is 4.9 seconds. Eyes-on dwell time with social media ads is much lower, which is largely a result of the scroll velocity. If the ads are on screen, then they are extremely likely to be viewed. But they are frequently not on screen for very long, and so not available to be looked at for a long time.
Finally, there is the dwell time with desktop and mobile display, which is in line with the dwell time norms for social media.
ATTENTION CURVES BY MEDIA
Mean averages can obscure as much as they reveal. To get a true picture of the reality of attention we should also look at the distribution of attention. Sure, if someone looks up at a TV ad, they will look at it for around 14 seconds on average – but how is that average constructed?
We have plotted the distribution of average aggregate dwell time with ads in different media. This chart shows the percentage of people who look for one second, two seconds, and so on – in total. They may not be watching from the start of the ad, and they may not be watching consecutive seconds. They may look at the screen, look away, and then look back.
Considered in this way, we see that the distribution of attention varies greatly. Most digital and social media formats have a fat head and a very long tail, suggesting that most people merely glance at ads, but, occasionally, if they find the ads useful or engaging, they can spend a very long time with them.
YouTube data suggests that, even though the ad is playing, people are not always watching. Just as the viewable percentage does not equal the actual viewing rate, so viewable time is not the same as eyes-on dwell time.
And from the TV data, we can see that far more people get to the end of a 30-second TV ad.
Most people merely glance at ads, but, occasionally, if they find the ads useful or engaging, they can spend a very long time with them.
Have you heard of the concept - ‘attentive seconds per thousand impressions’ or ‘aPM’?
ATTENTIVE SECONDS PER 1,000 IMPRESSIONS
All these different views on viewing are interesting, but it would be helpful to have a single number we could use to compare attention between media. This would allow us to ask how many YouTube ads add up to the same amount of attention as a typical TV ad? How many mobile web ads would I have to buy to create the same amount of attention as an ad on Facebook?
We can create this number by combining the viewing percentage (how many people actually look at the ad) with the mean average eyes-on dwell time (the time they actually spend looking at the ad) and multiplying it by a thousand (as media are always traded in thousands). We call this the aggregate ‘attentive seconds per thousand impressions’ or ‘aPM’.
For instance, if you were to buy 1,000, 30-second TV ad impressions, we would predict that 43% or 430 of them would be viewed, but they would be viewed for around 14 seconds each, generating around 6,000 attentive seconds. 920 of your 1,000 YouTube impressions might get looked at, but for only 4.9 second on average, generating 4,500 attentive seconds. And so on.
By following the logic of the attention funnel consistently across media, we have been able to create a common currency of attention that works equally across different media.
By following the logic of the attention funnel consistently across media, we have been able to create a common currency of attention that works equally across different media.”
This rough-and-ready calculation shows us that the average 30-second TV ad generates the same amount of attention as 1.5 YouTube ads, 4.5 Facebook in-feed ads, or 40 desktop display ads. Suddenly, we can start comparing apples with apples.
ATTENTIVE SECONDS PER 1000 IMPRESSIONS
The average 30-second TV ad generates the same amount of attention as 1.5 YouTube ads, 4.5 Facebook in-feed ads, or 40 desktop display ads.
6. The cost of attention across media
Combining attentive seconds per thousand impressions (‘aPM’) with the cost per thousand impressions (‘CPM’) to create the cost per thousand attentive seconds (‘aCPM’)
Advertising in different media creates different quantities of net aggregate attention. A 30-second TV ad will generate more than one thousand 15-second YouTube ads, which will in turn generate more than a thousand digital display ads on a desktop computer, and so on.
But the cost of buying a thousand impressions in each of these different media (known as the ‘cost per mille’ or ‘CPM’) is also different. For instance, CPMs for TV are far higher than for display advertising.
Combining the attentive seconds per thousand impressions with the cost per thousand impressions will help us create the cost per thousand seconds of attention, or ‘aCPM’. We can use this to understand the true cost attention across media. To illustrate this process, we have taken the mean average CPMs for a single UK client, and applied them to the attentive seconds per thousand impressions (aPM) data. Before we begin the analysis, we should remember that this is just a worked example, and suffers from many limitations:
- The attention data set: the TV data comes from the US only; the digital data is an amalgam of data from the US, UK, France, and Germany
- The media price data set: your CPMs may vary from these, and of course, there will also be great variation within the media
- Audience and contextual targeting: the cost of some media includes fees for targeting information, while others are more broadcast
Despite these limitations, we nevertheless believe it is still useful to compare the quantity of attention your campaigns generate with how much you are spending to buy this attention. When you combine the two datasets, you see the true cost of attention. TV – one of the most expensive media to buy on a CPM basis – generates so much more attention per thousand impressions that it is actually an ‘attention bargain’. Desktop display – often one of the cheaper media – isn’t cheap at all.
COST PER 1000 ATTENTIVE SECONDS
These ads generate so little attention that their aCPM is far higher than their comparators, including TV. There can be a high cost to low-priced media. In between these extremes are social media, which offer a range of possibilities, depending in part on how much you spend on targeting data. An attention currency, when combined with a real currency, has become a powerful analytical tool for marketers.
How long will it take for marketers to use attention metrics as a signal of media quality?
- The best are already doing it
- 3-6 months
*These figures take into account that when an ad appears, people’s eyes often focus on it for little or no time and this varies by medium.
**Costs are illustrative based on averages from one big spending company. Production costs should also be considered.
SECONDS OF ATTENTION VS COST OF MEDIA
30” TV ads cost about the same per impression as Facebook infeed ads but the average exposure lasts nearly 5 times longer (6* seconds versus 1.3*). Facebook, however, allows very specific types of people to be targeted.
Different attention strategies
7. Different attention strategies
Buying the right amount of attention to meet your communication objectives
Understanding the true cost of attention across media is a good first step, but is it enough on its own? Should marketers, who have for years mistakenly chased the cheapest CPMs, simply switch gears and chase the cheapest ‘aCPMs’ instead?
We think not.
As we will see in the next section, while more attention is almost always a good thing for advertisers, all attention is worth something, and what it is worth depends on what you are trying to achieve.
If your ads can only work if they receive a certain amount of undivided attention, then it is wise to buy media that will meet this threshold.
After all, you’d never buy a 15-second TV ad spot and then place just the first half of a 30-second ad in it. Instead, you’d either buy the proper amount of time or re-edit the ad to fit the time available.
The same is true of attention: if your ad will be ineffective without significant eyes-on dwell time, then don’t waste your media budget on inventory that routinely fails to deliver the required attention. Not all ads, however, require great chunks of attention. Sometimes, all you need it to do is remind consumers that your brand exists at all for it to have an impact in the market. If all you want to do is make sure that people look at your ads and you don’t care how long they look at them for, then the attention calculus changes dramatically.
And if your attention strategy changes, so too does the cost profile of the media you use.
Let’s consider two very different advertisers, with two very different objectives, who would require two very different attention strategies to achieve their aims.
If your attention strategy changes, so too does the cost profile of the media you use.
ADVERTISER A -
COST FOR 1000 VIEWS OF 5 SECONDS+