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Deep Dive 9 Mar 2021 - 5 min read

Why brands, ad holding companies - and whisper it, Facebook - are moving on an attention metric (beyond 1.7 seconds)

By Paul McIntyre & Brendan Coyne

Agencies and platforms grasp that advertisers seem willing to pay more for attention

Advertiser interest in the attention economy is surging around the world and even Facebook is moving beyond its long-held position that two seconds or less of advertising exposure is enough to make a lasting impact on memory. New ad formats, in fact, are likely coming from Facebook designed to expand and keep user attention beyond a blip. An international beta trial of a new attention metric across channels and screen types from Australia's Professor Karen Nelson-Field has attracted hundreds of agency groups, media companies and advertisers around the world. Here's what happens now. 

What you need to know:

  • Professor Karen Nelson-Field is building an attention metric.
  • It's gaining major traction around the world.
  • Now even Facebook appears to be coming around to the view that short bursts don't deliver the memory and brand impact that longer formats can achieve.
  • Ultimately, she's aiming for an attention currency.

Professor Karen Nelson-Field copped heavy flak the last time she questioned whether 1.7 seconds exposure to ads on Facebook and other platforms can drive results for brands. (In short, barely, and the two second Media Ratings Council standard may be counterproductive, per the professor’s research.)

But that was a damp squib compared to the first time Nelson-Field probed Facebook’s effectiveness as an advertising medium, pre-IPO in 2012. That made the platform angry; Australia knows what happens if we make Facebook angry. “It wasn’t fun at the time,” says Nelson-Field.

Yet, after all the pushback, it appears the platforms are coming around to her view. Perhaps all that academic research has some merit.

Founder and CEO at Amplified Intelligence, Nelson-Field spent a decade as a researcher at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute. She’s a professor of Media Innovation at the University of Adelaide and co-chair and founding board member of The Attention Council.

Now Nelson-Field is attempting to focus all of that academic rigour to create an attention a currency – and thinks she could do it within five years. Publishers, brands, and advertising holding companies are on board. Whisper it, but the big social media platforms too.


Attention pays

In a digitally fatigued post-Covid age, attention is everything. “Advertisers are sick of meaningless measures”, says Nelson-Field, and that urgency is flowing though the supply chain.

“Agencies are under pressure from advertisers who think many media measures are meaningless. Advertisers are more than ever looking for effectiveness and efficiency,” she says. “Attention as a measurement, which is a supplementary measurement to traditional reach and frequency, is looking really favorable in terms of being able to achieve all of those things.”

Without attention, it all ends in tears.

“Advertisers are crying because no one's watching,” says Nelson-Field. “Viewers are watching fewer and fewer ads and yet advertisers are spending more and more ad dollars. It’s a disconnect that comes back to effectiveness and efficiency.”


About face

The digital giants recognise the way the wind blows, says Nelson-Field.

“Even Facebook is making some changes around the way ads are delivered in some of the new formats that it’s building,” she says.

“Time will tell [how far they go and what they deliver] but I'm actually quite impressed that [Facebook] has recognised that time in view actually does have a direct relationship with memory and things like that.”

Does Nelson-Field know something we don’t about the direction of travel from Facebook and others when it comes to longer attention formats?

“I'm saying that the most recent work out of the UK will show you that [the big social platforms] understand the concept of both short term and long term, and I think they've come around to the fact that brands need both,” says Nelson-Field.

“I think they've had pressure that says … their standard in-feed doesn't drive enough attention.”

While nothing has yet changed in-market, Facebook and friends “are looking at ways to drive more long term memory [and paying] more attention to certain formats”, she says.

Nelson-Field points to less cryptic recent public evidence that Facebook is working up something less fleeting in a bid to woo brands: its response to a UK paper around ‘attention CPMs’. In short, Facebook pushes back on attention as a ‘purely time-based commodity’, but says outcomes trump everything.

It’s hardly explicit acknowledgement of the need for at least a blend of short-term hits and longer term memory encoding, says Nelson-Field, “but if you dig deeper, that is what they are trying to say”.


Attention currency

Nelson-Field is working with dozens of media companies around the world on an attention-based planning tool – attentionTRACE – that she hopes will ultimately underpin an attention currency.

While publishers (such as Are Media in Australia) have piled in to trial the tool, which is based on eye-tracking, Nelson-Field says advertising holding companies are just as keen to find more meaningful results for their clients.

However, she says there are still some pretty basic arguments to win in order to turn agencies away from legacy clicks and eyeball metrics.

“At the end of the day, agencies have spent a small fortune on their optimisation and planning systems. They are saying that they know they need something [different], because the media trading system is broken. But they also sort of say, can you just justify why?” says Nelson-Field.

She understands the need to justify system upgrade expenditure, “but I am also still shocked when I am asked if attention is a precursor to aid effectiveness.”

Nevertheless, Nelson-Field is philosophical regarding the transition now underway.

“Some people are going to struggle with spending more and some people are going to struggle with just changing their methodology,” she says. “Any big change requires handholding.”


Attention traced

Ultimately, Nelson-Field’s attentionTRACE technology is intended to show advertisers what share of mind they their money achieves.

Currently, she says, “you are not getting what you are paying for; there is no transparency around that truth, and everybody knows that.”

Her metric looks at passive and active attention, and then “drills down on distribution”. In other words, it attempts to determine what works passively and actively, and where.

“But it goes deeper than that, we also have the ability to split it out by category,” says Nelson-Field. “We've also got time stamped data – which is super interesting: Women, twenty four to thirty four, for example, watch [media] differently at different times of day. Because sometimes you are busy, and sometimes you are relaxed.”

Ultimately, says Nelson-Field, attentionTRACE helps brands understand what proportion of their ads are being viewed.

“The application of that is to apply it at the net reach level. So it's a weighting; it’s a set of data that can be applied as a weighting layer,” says Nelson-Field. “That's sort of how we're selling it in as an application.”


Attracting followers

Locally, attentionTRACE is working with the likes of Are Media, as well as some of the global agencies. Initial beta testing has closed, but Nelson-Field says interest rocketed far beyond even her high expectations.

“We were inundated with trials; hundreds of organisations across 21 countries, which shocked us,” she says.

Nelson-Field “personally on-boarded every single one [of those beta-testers] … So hundreds of hours face-to-face with all these organisations around the world to understand whether firstly, we were on the right track and secondly, what can we do to improve it”.

As such, expanded trials are continuing, in parallel with a commercial model for those that have been fully on-boarded and wish to continue.


Attention CPMs

Though it may be the ultimate goal, attentionTRACE has decided not to focus on developing an attention currency – at least not yet.

“We originally thought we would go in leading with an attention CPM. But we've changed that notion, because what we worked out is that CPM and performance is not linear – yet,” says Nelson-Field.

“So while our tool has the ability to ingest CPM data, we've changed [the focus] to optimise against number of seconds. Because for example, if a platform sells a CPM that's half the price of another, it might look like it's good value, but actually it has half the seconds,” says Nelson-Field.

“So we changed that, because at the end of the day, I'm interested in driving the ecosystem up, not driving it down to the lowest CPM.”

But she thinks an attention CPM is not light years away.

“At the moment, I feel the best place to start is this weighting layer. We call it attention adjusted net reach; it is a net reach number weighted down.”

It’s crucial to get that layer right before going any further, she stresses, “so we don’t stuff it up.”

All that said, Nelson-Field thinks five years is “absolutely” attainable to launch a robust attention currency.

“Human attention is really valuable. So anything that's valuable can be used in that kind of context,” she says. “We can’t rush it and break a system. But I don’t see it being far away… and when the cost is relative to performance, I think we will eventually move to an attention CPM,” says Nelson-Field. “But for the minute I think it is too soon.”

One to keep at least half an eye on.

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