Attention: An industry challenge

Claire Charron, Joe Cryer / June 2018

Google’s exploration into capturing and measuring attention in the modern multi-screen world.

Are you paying attention? Of course you are.

After all, without paying some degree of attention to the words on this page, you can’t be taking in their meaning, and the words can’t have an effect on you. They can’t pique your interest, elicit an opinion, or change your mind. Attention is important for the very simple reason that it’s a prerequisite for impact.

If that’s true for this article, it’s true for messages in videos, podcasts and billboards too. These things are all designed to have an effect, and however impressive they might look or sound in production, if they don’t receive any attention in the real world, they can’t have any impact.

When it comes to video ads specifically, there’s a lot of industry debate around what standards should be applied for viewability and audibility. But no matter what precise standards are applied, it won’t tell us which ads are making that crucial leap to being seen or heard, a leap that involves attention of some kind. And beyond a minimum threshold, could understanding the types and degrees of attention paid also help us predict the types and degrees of advertising impact?

Something that is commonly highlighted is how crowded the battleground for our attention has become. The multiple screens and devices vying for our attention make it difficult for messages to be seen and heard, but also make it harder for us to know if any attention was paid to them.

In order to systematically factor attention into planning, we need to understand how predictable it is and identify meaningful ways of measuring it - all whilst understanding what that looks like in the most complex media environment we’ve ever known.

This challenge is vitally important for the whole industry, and so we’ve been partnering with experts to better understand attention. Our ambition is to help the industry recognise its importance as they plan advertising campaigns across different devices and platforms.

Together, we at Revealing Reality and Google set out to conduct a multi stage attention research programme. We began last year, with exploratory studies observing how people actually pay attention to a wide range of video platforms and devices in the real world. We observed a range of behaviours spanning from people appearing to completely ignore some messages, to simple observable signals of attention such as ‘eyes on screen’, through to clear indications that people had processed and acted on what they saw. Observing this broad range of behaviours reinforces the notion that attention is not binary, but there are different types and degrees that all sit on a broader attention spectrum.

People turning up the volume, plugging in headphones, rotating their screen to maximise a video, sharing a video with friends on social media, or making a cup of tea before sitting down to watch something - these behaviours indicated when people were investing in their viewing experience and correlated with paying attention. We call these ‘investment behaviours’.

Through observing human behaviour in ethnographic studies, and looking out for these investment behaviours, we landed on other interesting findings.

For example, in the living room, the TV is often the focus of the room, but the mobile is the focus of the individual, and tends to dominate the individual’s attention in multi-screening moments. It’s likely you only have to think back as far as the last time you watched TV with someone else to recognise this pattern of behaviour.

What about investment behaviours outside of the living room?

We found that the predictability and stability of an environment was actually far more important in determining attention to video levels than someone’s physical location. In fact, predictable out-of-home environments that people are very familiar with (such as their commute) can even act as an extension of their living rooms when it comes to their video-watching behaviours. In less stable or predictable environments, such as waiting in a queue, people were often choosing video content and platforms they could consume in a more piecemeal fashion and lend their attention to in shorter spurts.

Finally, across platforms, devices and environments, there was one factor that guaranteed higher levels of attention: the personal relevance of the content. When people were watching videos we knew they valued, they consistently exhibited more investment behaviours such as turning up the volume and even talking about and sharing the video.

So far in our research, we’ve seen some promising evidence to suggest attention might be in some ways predictable. And luckily, we’re not alone in this endeavor. We’re working with experts and thought leaders from the agency, client and research worlds to unpick this complex topic together and hone in on findings that will help improve campaign planning.

So what’s next?

The next phase of research includes an investigation into the minimum threshold at which attention allows for impact, and an analysis of the relationship between degrees of attention and impact measures. Over the course of the next year, we’ll share the results of all this work publicly. Our hope is that we can advance the whole industry’s understanding of this difficult subject, and so enable more effective campaigns.

That’s something we hope will really get your attention.

Research: The link between attention & effectiveness in video advertising