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News Analysis 28 Oct 2021 - 6 min read

Attention versus Neuro Science: How a new advertising measurement stack is emerging to fix the problems with ad impressions and viewability

By Paul McIntyre & Sam Buckingham-Jones
Lumen Research's Mike Follett, Neuro-Insight's Peter Pynta, and PlaygroundXYZ's Rob Hall.

Lumen Research's Mike Follett, Neuro-Insight's Peter Pynta, and PlaygroundXYZ's Rob Hall.

Surging global interest in advertising attention measurement from marketers, media and agency networks is forcing an industry-wide rethink of legacy “tonnage” metrics like audience impressions and viewability, which give blunt but often misleading signals about how ad impact and effectiveness is landing with consumers.

What you need to know:

  • Emerging attention metrics are challenging the usefulness of legacy audience and advertising measurement proxies like impressions, viewability and reach as standalone planning and trading currencies.
  • Combining blunt “tonnage” measures of impressions and viewability with more qualitative layers like advertising attention measurement and neuro science, which among other things, tracks long term memory encoding, is finally advancing decades-old audience and ad effectiveness measurement.
  • The upside is they avoid privacy-challenged online user tracking and identifiers.

At least marketers, agencies and media are saying there’s more to this [measurement] game than just the tonnage metrics of reach and frequency. This debate has a been a long time coming, frankly.

Peter Pynta, CEO, Neuro Insight

New frontier

Australia is leading a global charge into the attention economy with rapidly expanding international SaaS plays like Karen Nelson-Field’s Amplified Intelligence, now backed by some of Australia’s wealthiest individuals and family offices through venture capital fund Ten13.

Amplified Intelligence’s AttentionTrace platform has struck deals with four of the six global agency holding companies and myriad media companies and brand owners in Europe and North America. British advertising effectiveness supremo Peter Field called Karen Nelson-Field’s attention work “electrifying” at the Advertising Council’s launch of a global benchmarking report To ESOV ad Beyond.    

Another attention measurement player is UK-based Playground XYZ, which recently struck an alliance with Publicis Groupe to incorporate its attention measurement system into programmatic trading. 

In the more established field of advertising neuro science, Australia is also a leading global player through Neuro Insight, based on the the work of Professor Richard Silberstein in Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) at Swinburne University’s Brain Sciences Institute.  

Between attention and neuro science, advertising and audience measurement appears to be taking its next big – and overdue – leap, without the increasing risks of invasive, privacy-challenged tracking of online users and their every move. 

“This is the new frontier, which I think is really interesting, and being driven by the deprecation of the cookie,” Playground XYZ CEO Rob Hall told the IAB’s MeasureUp conference this week. “The best thing of all is there’s no [digital] identifiers. The power of attention-based metrics is pretty profound, compared to viewability. Comparing to viewability, [attention] is 7.5x more potent at driving awareness and 5.9x more potent at driving recall,” he claimed.

Paying attention

The managing director of Lumen Research, Mike Follett, which uses eye tracking data from two permanent panels in the UK and US, and temporary panels in France, Germany, Italy, Indonesia and Australia, explained the fallibility of impressions to the MeasureUp conference this way:

If a campaign has 1,000 impressions, only 51 per cent may have been 'technically viewable' according to the IAB's guidelines. Even though 510 of those impressions were viewable – and they may have been visible for 5, 10, or even 15 seconds – their data might calculate just 90 people actually looked at the ad, and they looked for an average of 1.6 seconds. That means I got 148 seconds of attention per 1,000 impressions," said Follett.

"This is important, because we can start to compare between media and between formats, as well as whole media as well... if you were to buy 1,000 30-second TV ads, you might get 6,000 seconds of attention. 1,000, 15-second YouTube ads might get you 4,500 seconds of attention, whereas 1,000 mobile ads might get you 422 [attention seconds]. Using this common currency for media, you can start looking at more unusual formats... and this has quite a big implication for how much you should pay for these formats."

Memory test

Neuro Insight CEO Peter Pynta also addressed the IAB’s Measure Up conference and told Mi3 in an interview this week that the global interest in attention measurement was a welcome development. “This is a good thing,” he said. “At least marketers, agencies and media are saying “Hang on, there’s more to this [measurement] game than just the tonnage metrics of reach and frequency. This debate has been a long time coming, frankly.”

Indeed, what looks like emerging are several new layers of measurement which adds a qualitative layer of advertising impact and effectiveness beyond the problematic legacy proxies of reach, impressions and viewability. 

But if impressions and viewability are getting more granular by connecting them with topline attention measurement, that is, which media and platforms deliver better attention levels, Pynta argues there’s still further upside for advertisers by connecting those metrics with how advertising – and critically the creative and messaging – is landing and being processed in the brain for long term memory encoding. 

“The closest thing we have to link real world sales [from advertising measurement systems] is long-term memory encoding,” Pynta said. “Memory encoding is the jewel in our crown. It is the highest correlation to real world sales.” Neuro Insights' long term analysis from its work globally puts that correlation at 86 per cent. 

“The neuro science community around the world has overwhelming established that memory is there to guide consumer behaviour. In fact, memories only exist to guide people’s behaviour. That’s why the brain stores stuff the way it does. That’s why consumer behaviour and memory is so strongly correlated.”

Long-term memory encoding – or mental availability in the words of Ehrenberg Bass Institute’s Professor Byron Sharp – captures everything that’s going on “whether you’re aware of it or not”, added Pynta. 

Only 15 per cent?

But Pynta has a curveball. He said “visual attention” accounts for just 15 per cent of memory encoding. Storytelling, emotion, frequency and context make up the remaining 85 per cent.

But of course, before the brain can start embedding ad messages into long-term memory for a chance at a purchasing decision later, the ad has to be seen. Reach, impressions and viewability, which currently underpin most advertisers media and channel mix allocations in the global $600bn ad market, fail miserably at this. They essentially deliver “opportunity to see” guide rails. Attention metrics turn the possibility that an ad has been seen to qualified active or passive ad attention, in the case of Amplified Intelligence’s AttentionTrace system. 

From there, a combination of brain science, which informs an advertiser on the components in an ad which is landing in long-term memory encoding, and econometric modelling, might finally see real advances in audience, media and advertising effectiveness measurement. Indeed, another Australian start-up in automated econometrics from Mutiny’s War Chest SaaS platform, is also bringing new possibilities for proving advertising efficacy. 

“Anything that evolves and moves the game along is a good thing,” said Pynta. “It’ll take a while to nail the real quality metrics that do tell you something about the outcome, which is why we’re so big on long-term memory. The outcome is poorly defined by tonnage metrics but this is a great evolution. It’s definitely going in the right direction. That is a very good thing.”

Attention case studies

On the IAB Measure Up webinar this week Playground XYZ’s CEO Rob Hall, spoke about the value of combining attention measurement with context which, he said, creates a powerful, data-driven, scalable advertising alternative that uses no identifiers or cookies. Playground XYZ has recently been named as Publicis Groupe's programmatic trading partner, and has shown strong results for luxury fashion brand Oroton. 

His company has gone heavily into "attention time" metric, which, like Lumen Research and Amplified Intelligence, is a metric based on panel data and AI models that measures eye movement.  

Hall used a lipstick brand as an example. "I might be around beauty and make up a lipstick environments. The problem is, you don't really know that those are the right places to put your ad. You intuitively think they are. And maybe you have some research from the past around your focus groups or whatever. But you don't have the real time feedback loop and the signals you need to say, ‘okay, I'm delivering my ad into beauty environments. Is it working?’" Hall said. 

"And, of course, on top of that, what if there are a whole bunch of other environments that are right for you but you’ve started way too narrow? What if news was right, or gardening, or lifestyle or food? Attention signals can come in and help with that."

"The power of attention based metrics is pretty profound, compared to viewability. Comparing to viewability, it’s 7.5x more potent at driving awareness and 5.9x more potent at driving recall. 

"So the juice is definitely worth the squeeze."

Hall used car manufacturer Suzuki's experience as an example. The company ran two different digital ad creatives for its Swift and Vitara models, but measured attention and adjusted the context in which each creative appeared based on the results. 

"The Suzuki Swift is more urban and female-skewed and kind of urbanised, and the Vitara is a little more SUV based and maybe a little more family-oriented, and maybe slightly masculine," Hall said. 

"And you can start to see these things come out. The Swift did better in food and drink, beauty and fitness, whereas the Vitara started doing better in games, in auto and vehicles, education, computer electronics. Those two creatives have two kinds of inherent audiences sitting behind them, and you’re able to pick up the signal of which contexts and which audiences in those contexts are resonating with and which aren’t. … things like that can give you a huge lift in attention time.”

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Paul McIntyre & Sam Buckingham-Jones

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