Why online marketing professionals should pay more attention to attention

- 's-Hertogenbosch

We marketing professionals are a spoiled bunch. Everything is quantifiable and monitoring KPIs such as CTR, conversion rate, VTR, likes and engagement is easier than ever. For a while, it seemed that being able to measure absolutely everything only had upsides, but we’re now learning more about the downside too.


Adidas famously experienced the drawbacks last year, and problems tend to arise when these typical performance KPIs are used to foster brand growth and improve branding.

In her recently published book The Attention Economy and How Media Works, Professor Karen Nelson-Field explores the truth behind measurability and how advertising achieves its goals: changing consumer behaviour. In the book, Nelson-Field homes in on the subject of attention, which appears to be the driving force behind advertising. Want to know why attention is so important for advertisers? Keep reading!

Why attention?

Nowadays, advertisers find themselves in a fierce battle for consumer attention. Although reaching consumers has become easier than ever, it has never been more challenging to capture their attention. So why do advertisers want attention? Of course for the very simple reason: you can’t love what you don’t know.

For her book, Nelson-Field delved into the relationship between attention and brand growth, conducting a unique, large-scale quantitative study and concluding that consumer attention is a good predictor of changes to purchasing behaviour, in contrast to KPIs such as CTR. Karen Nelson-Field is not alone: many researchers have shown this before, including Nielsen, as shown below. So, why is attention such a predictor?

Attention: why is it overlooked?

If we know that attention is more important than many other KPIs we use every day, why do we pay relatively little attention to it? The most obvious reason I can think of is that it is an extremely difficult metric to measure. While KPIs such as CTR and VTR are real-time and easy to report and optimise, attention is not. Nelson-Field had to put a lot of time and effort into setting up a good, qualitative study to measure attention, which is something us marketing professionals have grown quite unaccustomed to doing. We strive to push daily reports and optimise results in real time to make the best possible use of the available budget. And yet, charting a course based on real-time KPIs alone won’t get you far.

How can online marketing influence attention?

Let's start by accepting that attention is not an easy metric to quantify, while admitting that it is an important variable affecting the success of our ads. Creatives have known this for a long time, because a creative concept is an important factor for maximising attention for your ad and brand. For decades, creation has been the backbone of successful TV ads, and little has changed in the world of TV ads in recent years. The challenge has always been to deploy brand communication as effectively as possible through the medium of television in about 30 seconds.

Capturing attention with online marketing, however, brings with it completely different challenges. Online ads come in all shapes and sizes, from videos to stills, from thirty-second ads to five-second pre-rolls, and from full-screen shots to small banners. All in all, there’s an awful lot of ways to attempt to capture the consumer’s attention in one way or another.

Multitude of factors

With her study, Nelson-Field shows that there are several factors that influence consumer attention in the online domain. There is, for example, a clear correlation between an ad’s pixel count and consumer attention, and the length of time an ad stays in view is also a relevant factor. Keep in mind that online publishers do not sell many ads that stay on screen for very long, which poses quite a challenge! Consumer attention is also affected by how much of the screen is covered by an ad, but, Nelson-Field argues, this effect is not as strong as pixel count and ad length.

Nelson-Field posits that we have ended up in what is known as an ‘attention economy’, and because this new economy is still in its early days, it is difficult to form a clear picture of the impact that attention has. The above examples are not the only variables that affect the attention given to online ads, so make sure you’re ready for more of these findings.

What should advertisers do with this insight?

‘You need to look ahead to stay ahead’, and the same goes for marketing strategies. Getting ready to devote more attention to attention can give you an edge over the competition, and there are some questions that you can already ask yourself to move towards embracing attention in your online marketing strategy, such as:
· Which KPIs are my online marketing ads based on, and specifically those aimed at branding?
· Do I know which factors affect the attention paid to my online ads?
· Am I focusing on these factors?
· And if I know how attention differs across online channels, what does this mean for the budget and channel decisions I make in my online media plans?
· How can I properly compare the costs of one placement with others, knowing that attention influences the actual value of a placement.

I’m looking forward to a future in which we stop focusing on KPIs that don’t matter to help separate the sense from the nonsense. Work by researchers like Nelson-Field will prove to be a tremendous help. Let’s leave our KPI comfort zone and focus on what we're supposed to do: grow brands.

Author Youri Harmsen is Managing Director at Springbok. This article previously appeared on Emerce.