What drives attention? Exploring the new front line of ad effectiveness

Rachael Powell, Elizabeth Verow, Mark Henning / September 2020

Why do people pay attention to some ads but not others? That was the question we set out to answer when we launched our attention research in Australia in 2015. Since then, we’ve been building on that study to better understand how Aussies’ ad-viewing behaviour has evolved.

We know that attention is best assessed through visual metrics, so we most recently worked with Kantar and Eye Square to track Australian consumers’ eye movement across 2,808 ads. Participants wore discreet eye-tracking glasses that allowed researchers to observe real-time viewing behaviour both in and outside the home — a first for the Australian market.

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The wearable technology allowed researchers to evaluate participants’ attention under natural conditions, providing a clear and valid picture of which ads they paid attention to across different platforms, devices, and environments. The results demonstrated the challenges advertisers face when it comes to capturing and maintaining audience attention.

Here’s what we found.

Attention and effectiveness go hand in hand

For years, consumer research has focused on reach and exposure. While certainly a prerequisite for attention, measuring exposure to advertising is no longer enough. Today’s consumers are exposed to more ads and more distractions than ever before. To truly understand the impact of advertising, marketers and advertisers need to know whether their ad captured their audiences’ attention.

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Our research in 2018 found a significant correlation between attention and impact. Regardless of ad format or device, the longer a participant watched an ad, the higher their level of recall.1 In a separate study, participants exposed to ads they both saw and heard also reported 2.7X higher recall than those exposed to ads they only heard.2 That means your ad is less impactful to a consumer who’s sitting in front of the screen but having a conversation with someone in the same room.

Online video drives the most attention

Across platforms, YouTube enjoyed the highest share of eyes on screen at 64% compared to catch-up TV (54%) and free-to-air TV (49%).3

Percentage of eyes on screen

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Why does attention differ by platform? Evolving consumption behaviours mean Aussies have become accustomed to longer TV ad breaks, so they plan for them. This predictability allows Aussies to do what we all do during a TV ad break, like make a cup of tea, play with a pet, or have a chat. But YouTube’s diverse formats and shorter ads make the platform’s advertising less predictable. What’s more, 43% of YouTube viewers take their device with them while they complete other tasks,4 allowing them to watch wherever they go.

Choice, creative, and context impact attention

The innovative eye-tracking glasses allowed us to measure attention in various environments and quantify the impact. While there were nuances in terms of platform, we found that the combination of choice, creative, and context have the biggest impact on attention.

Choice: Today’s viewers can watch whatever they want, whenever they want. So when they choose something to watch, they pay more attention to it.5 That logic also applies to ads: Many of the best-performing ads on YouTube are over two minutes long. One of the most interesting examples we explored was skippable ads. What we found was that viewers watch the ad itself rather than the skip button, and then make a choice to stay or skip.6

Creative: No one wants to watch a boring ad. That means advertisers have to work extra hard to create ads that grab viewers’ attention from the start. Across our study, ads with the highest levels of recall followed Unskippable principles,7 like optimising visual language and narrative structure for specific audiences and platforms.

Context: Attention is less dependent on where viewers are physically when they consume content (e.g., at home vs. during their commute) and more dependent on how much attention they can spare in that environment. In fact, many participants’ attention was higher while watching during their commutes than it was at home.8 Why? Because viewers often choose content that suits their surroundings — in this case, they know exactly how much time they have and can devote their full attention to it with less distractions (think no second screen or headphones) — enjoying shorter form content to fit the time they have.

Why marketers should pay attention to attention

Reach and exposure are important media measures, but they don't tell the whole story. Ads that are successful at gaining the attention of consumers — through great creative, and being viewed in the right environment — have the best chance of effectively impacting consumers. To find out more about how behaviours influence our attention, watch our video summarising key findings from the research.

Our latest eye-tracking research is part of an ongoing attention study. For the next phase, we will continue to partner with Kantar and Eye Square to dive deeper into the role and influence of content on audience attention.

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Rachael Powell

Head of Consumer & Market Insights Google
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Elizabeth Verow

Research Manager Google
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Mark Henning

Director Kantar Research

Sources (6)

1 Google/Ehrenberg-Bass/MediaScience, Attention Measures (Videos), US, 2018., lab study, 13 videos, 108 participants.

2 Google, TrueView Brand Studies Aug.–Sept. 2016, Global, data for users with single impression. Data shows ratio of additive differences vs. control respondents for each group of viewers. All advertisements measured were video ads and designed to be both audible and viewable.

3, 7 Google/Kantar/Eye Square study, AUS, March 2020, 2808 ads, 737 mins of ads shown where ad length was identifiable. Platforms included: YT, FTA, CUTV.

4 Google/Kantar/Eye Square Attention study, AUS, March 2020, quantitative online survey, n=138, AA3: You said you occasionally/primarily focus on something else when ads are showing on this platform, why is this?

5, 8 Google/Revealing Reality, Environmental Factors of Attention, UK, screen record 25 respondents for 2 weeks 24 hours per day.

6 Google / Kantar / Eye Square, Attention Study, AUNZ, March 2020, qualitative in-depth interviews, n=18.

Google’s Unskippable Labs has run over 250 video ad experiments. Learn their approach