Attention: How Much Is Enough?

28 May, 2021

Dentsu's recently published research shifts the conversation to the value of attention and suggests getting some attention is more valuable than getting lots of attention. Lumen MD Mike Follett explains.

Thursday saw the launch of the first tranche of data from the second round of the Dentsu Attention Economy project. The data relates to the UK only (US data will be released shortly), but the findings are explosive enough on their own.

The UK leg Attention Economy project is, on its own, the largest individual eye tracking project ever undertaken. It combines two types of research: 

  1. A panel of 1000 UK mobile consumers, asked to download Lumen’s software for a month or more, passively tracking what they could see, and what they do, in fact, end up looking at.
  2. A series of controlled tests, amongst a total sample of over 2600 in the UK alone, where we tried to understand the relationship between attention and recall and attention and brand choice (assessed via a questionnaire).

The findings are that curious combination of the banal and the fascinating that often accompanies attention research. Ads work better if you look at them? OK. Thanks for letting me know. How much did you pay to find that out? 

But at the same time: attention is the ‘active ingredient’ in advertising success. Ah, now things get a bit more interesting. How much attention do you need to make a difference? Tell me more.

Let’s start with the simple stuff (all the charts relating to these points can be downloaded here):

  • Once again, we have found good evidence that just because an ad is viewable does not mean that anyone will view it. 
  • Once again, we have found enormous differences in the attention paid to ads in different formats and on different publishers and platforms – which may or may not be represented in the price you pay to appear on those publishers or platforms.
  • Once again, we have found that attention to advertising is the product of many different interrelated factors, the most important of which are Time (i.e. time in view) and Space (i.e. % of the screen taken up by the ad).

But things get more interesting when we start looking at the relationship between attention and recall or brand choice. For years, we have been talking about the quantity of attention or the cost of attention produced by different media. What about the value of that attention? 

Here we see an interesting, but not exactly linear relationship. More attention is always worth more in terms of recall or choice, but there is a law of diminishing returns. Getting some attention is, relatively speaking, worth a lot more than getting lots of attention.

So, attention is valuable – and attention data is more valuable than viewability data. But this is the start of the conversation, not the end. When we presented the data on an obligatory Zoom call on Thursday, the chat felt like it was the start of discussion, rather than the end of a debate.

The first question brands and agency folk were asking is this: is all attention worth the same? As usual, the great Brian Jacobs was first to the punch on this, though this is also something that Byron Sharp and Duane Varan in their work for Google have been talking about independently.

Just as not all impressions are created equal, so not all attention is worth the same. It is silly to compare a second of TV airtime to a second spent looking at digital ad, not least because you can’t buy a one-second TV ad. We have to use these attention metrics to teach us something about the world, rather than impose them as (another) arbitrary standard.

Secondly, how much attention is enough attention? And the answer to this has to be: it depends. Some ads are designed to work in a short amount of time and can get the job done in a couple of seconds.

Other ads might be equally successful – more successful! – but only if they are given enough time to work their magic. A field full of daisies and a mighty oak are both ‘successful’ in their own way, it just depends on how you define success. Which brings the question back to the brands and agencies: what are you trying to do? How do you think your advertising works? What is your theory of change? And therefore, what is your attention strategy to help you achieve this?

Finally, there’s the question of how media and meaning interrelate. The Dentsu study has tried to scrupulously avoid the issue of the impact of either creative or targeting, but in truth, we are on a hiding to nothing.

Just as you cannot have form without content, so too you cannot entirely divorce what you might call ‘bottom up’ media effects from ‘top down’ meaning effects. Who’s doing the talking – and who’s doing the listening – have a massive impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of the communication between the two. 

Acknowledging this is especially important for research projects like this, because if we are not careful, we will fall into a very modern version of the Rosser Reeves fallacy (a point that has been made repeatedly, and forcefully, to me by Les Binet). People are much more likely to spend time engaging with ads from brands that they already know and like than they are to spend time with complete ‘strangers’.

But at the same time, one of the primary tasks for advertising is to make sure that people know and perhaps even like brands so that they are not ‘strangers’ when it comes to the moment of truth. Attention and familiarity are the cause and the effect of one another.

But this raises the question: which is the chicken and which is the egg? Is it the attention than leads to brand choice or brand choice that leads to attention? 

The answer is: it’s complicated. Targeting and creative, especially the use of distinctive assets that can be encoded or interpreted in the short amounts of time that most people actually expend on advertising, are very important. Perceptions are, after all, hypotheses: we are constantly interpreting the world and choosing what to look at based on what matters to us (which, to be honest, is rarely advertising). Attention is finite, and selective, and, in part, voluntary.

But only in part. Even when this is taken into account, there appear to be significant effects driven by the media itself: we can only see what is put in front of us. This is something that we will be addressing in more detail when we debrief the US results (including TV data from our chums TVision). Watch this space.

And we know this is true from other sources, as well as our own common sense. This summer will see the publication of an important paper from Andre Viega and Tommaso Valletti at Imperial College London. They have investigated exactly this issue in the course of a broader research project looking into the effect of context on attention to and impact of advertising.

The results of early adopters of the Lumen Attention Measurement Platform (LAMP) also suggests that buying better media leads to better sales. LAMP empowers advertisers to buy advertising inventory based on its likely attention levels, irrespective of the creative or any targeting data. It seems to work pretty well for British Gas and The Coop. Get in touch if you would like it to work for you.

Mike Follett is MD at Lumen. Hear Mike speak and meet the Lumen team at MAD//Fest London on 7-8 July.

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