Attention Economy: how to capture users’ limited attention

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Attention is a precious and rare resource because “a person has only so much of it.” This maxim from Matthew Crawford immediately thrusts us into one of the great challenges of digital marketing, namely capturing and keeping the attention of users.With the multiplication of online platforms and available content, in fact, the average user is bombarded with notifications, ads, and content of all kinds, and thus it has become even more difficult to stand out and get ahead. This phenomenon is known as the “attention economy,” an expression that describes the tight competition for attention in an information-overloaded world, requiring us to optimize our strategies to ensure that the right message reaches the right audience at the right time.

What is the attention economy

Attention economy is based on a simple principle: human attention is limited. We cannot focus on everything at once, so we choose what to devote our time to. In this context, attention becomes a scarce and, consequently, valuable resource.

This is not a new concept – the first formulation originated as far back as the 1970s – but it has become highly topical in today’s digital world, where content seems to be infinite while the time available to each of us is not.

In this sense, the attention economy becomes a principle that manifests itself through the struggle to stand out in a social network’s news feed, to rank at the top of Google’s search results or to get a click on an advertisement. Every interaction we manage to gain is the result of a strategy that has effectively harnessed the attention economy.

What is meant by attention

At this point it is also appropriate to point out what “attention” means: taking Nielsen Norman Group information, attention is “a selective focus on some of the stimuli we are currently perceiving, ignoring other stimuli from the environment.”

When in ordinary conversations we say “pay attention” we unconsciously imply two important features of this asset: that it is limited and that it is valuable. When we “pay” attention to one thing, we deplete our mental resource budget so that we have less attention available to spend elsewhere. All theories of human attention agree that its capacity is limited, and already the psychologist and economist Herbert A. Simon in the 1970s described attention as a “bottleneck” in human thinking, also adding that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

The presumption of multitasking is a fandom, experts argue: people cannot fully devote themselves to several things at once. For example, you can keep your phone on while watching television, but if they focus their attention on a social media stream, they will miss some of what happened on the show.

The main theories on attention economy

It has been practically more than half a century that scholars have been trying to clarify these concepts, and over time, the theories behind attention economy have intersected with psychology, economics, and technology.

One of the fathers of these formulations is the aforementioned Herbert Simon, among the first to reason about the scarcity of attention in the context of information abundance: in 1971, Simon pointed out that a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, suggesting that when information is abundant, what becomes rare is human attention, consumed and dispersed in an overabundance of information sources.

In the 1990s, Michael Goldhaber expanded on the concept of the attention economy, stating that “attention is the main currency of the digital economy” and pointing out that in a world where information is overabundant, what matters is the ability to attract and hold the attention of the public. Also during this period, B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore first spoke of the experience economy, arguing that memorable experiences can effectively capture consumers’ attention-and spurring businesses to create unique and engaging experiences to stand out.

The well-known long-tail theory, invented by Chris Anderson in 2004, also applies to these concepts because it starts from a review of how far culture and economics were moving away from a focus on a relatively small number of mainstream “hits” and moving toward a wide range of niches: in this context, attention is dispersed across a larger number of interests and content.

The implications for digital marketing and SEO

These theories remind us that it is not enough to produce quality content: knowing how to make it visible and attractive in a sea of distractions is also essential. Modern digital marketing has taken this approach to develop increasingly refined attention capture techniques, such as behavioral targeting, personalized content marketing, and not least search engine optimization itself.

The starting point of the attention economy is, as reiterated, a consideration of the fact that a potential consumer’s attention is a valuable and limited resource. This perspective is reflected in the AIDA (attention, interest, desire, and action) model, a linear process that advertisers in traditional media have long used to guide consumers through the funnel toward conversion: in this sequence, attention is the first and crucial step in transforming an individual from mere spectator to active consumer.

With the advent of online advertising, the cost of reaching consumers has been greatly reduced, allowing a much higher volume of ads to be broadcast than a consumer can actually process. As a result, consumer attention has become the scarce resource to be captured and carefully managed. However, this superfluidity of information can also complicate the decision-making process, prompting individuals to keep searching and comparing products in a seemingly endless cycle of promises and expectations-as described by the messy middle concept introduced by Google for that chaotic phase, precisely, that lies between the first trigger and the last step.

The challenge for websites, then, is to emerge in this ocean of content, becoming a reference point for users through a combination of quality, relevance and optimization. Content quality is key to maintaining attention once captured, thus preventing rapid disengagement on the part of the user. Relevance, on the other hand, ensures that content meets the needs and interests of the target audience, requiring a deep understanding of who users are, what they are looking for, and how they prefer to consume content. Optimization plays a key role in ensuring that content is easily found, through SEO practices that improve ranking in search results and through optimizing the user experience, which makes site navigation pleasant and intuitive.

In this context, it is important to recognize and remember that humans have limited cognitive resources: when these resources are focused on one task, fewer are consequently available for others. Attention, as a cognitive process that requires selective concentration on certain information at the expense of others, can be seen as a limited processing resource.

This principle also extends to less ethical marketing practices, such as spamming via e-mail and on the Web. Spammers exploit the current architecture of e-mail systems and search engines to capture attention without paying a fair price for it. Sending large amounts of spam e-mail has a very low cost to spammers and can be profitable even with extremely low conversion rates; similarly, manipulating search engine results through Black Hat practices such as creating and trading hyperlinks can distort the visibility of online content.

Finally, the paid inclusion model and advertising networks such as Yahoo! Publisher Network and Google AdSense treat consumer attention as property that can be exploited by the search engine or publisher.

In short, all these practices highlight the commercial nature of the attention economy, where attention is not only a resource, but also a commodity that can be bought, sold, and traded in the digital marketplace

Attention economy: leveraging video and multimedia to capture users

Every day we are exposed to over 4 thousand advertising messages, coming from multiple platforms, devices and channels: a real “battlefield for attention”, says Dentsu’s research, and yet marketers continue “to trade on impressions, they know the cost and the scope, but perhaps they ignore the real value of the ads, if they were ever seen and what their impact was”.

It is from these premises that part of the definition of a new approach to multi-channel marketing, called Attention Economy, which is based on a different system of values and on the evaluation of “what is likely to be delivered, compared to what is bought“.

The study, which is also the focus of an interesting insight published on Google’s blog by JiYoung Kim, Chief Digital Officer of Carat US, tried to highlight how teams can use data and technology to answer these questions and, most importantly, tries to explain why it is time to immediately start “narrowing the gap between media, creative and content strategy” to get the most out of these digital platforms, using video not only to attract consumers, but also to engage them, capture their attention and get results at scale.

A new approach to content production as well

Attention has always been “an integral part of the value of the media, but in a context of low growth, with media budgets under intense scrutiny, this can be confused with attention to price“. Instead, the attention economy focuses on the user, or rather the ability to win his interest, even temporary, with promotional content offered through the various channels and platforms.

Audience attention is no longer just a fact, but has become “something to gain as the audience shuts down, jumps, passes over and breaks down”, especially talking about online videos, the format of ads in the fastest growth and also characterized by the possibility of the on-demand view, which has now become the norm.

Advertising has been slow to react to this challenge and now it is necessary to dedicate a new care to advertising messages and their content, to discover a way to give value to media investments of brands that is more stable “in the context of a fragmented and confused digital landscape“, without forgetting that “the purpose of advertising is to build bridges, simplify and allow brands to communicate with consumers”.

In particular, our media consumption habits are changing and evolving, and we are now becoming increasingly untethered from the old traditional TV, becoming familiar with video services and streaming platforms that are present virtually everywhere and available at all times. But there is one crucial aspect that marketers need to understand in order to seize the new opportunities: while having some things in common with linear TV, what worked for classic media does not necessarily work for new experiences.

Study results confirm: audience attention is a rare commodity

Dentsu specialists, using the latest eye-tracking technology and the latest research panels in the UK, US and Australia, analyzed 17,000 individual video advertising exposures across three platforms (linear TV, in-feed video on social media and preroll on video platforms), drawing some very useful considerations for all those who are interested in digital marketing.

The first aspect highlighted is actually a confirmation of emphasizes what, intuitively, we all know: attention is a rare resource and, at the same time, advertising often does not require all our attention. On average, ads were viewed directly for only a third of the time they appeared and most of the attention was given to peripheral visualization; a significant part of the subjects examined completely avoided the ads. All platforms provided a mix of attention, but the device used is significant for reception (for example, full avoidance happens more on linear TV than on smartphone TV).

Specifically, research reveals that only a third of ads get full public attention; when people can skip ads, they often use the feature, and when they cannot skip ads, they still look away. According to experts, the explosion of digital content, new forms of advertising and technology at hand has created both the grounds and the means for people to project advertising out of their lives.

How to re-evaluate advertisings

Two fundamental points of view emerge from the analysis of the results:

  • An ad that you cannot see is worthless, but the way we see advertising and how it affects effectiveness is more nuanced. For example, even partially viewed ads are able to increase sales and thus the reduction of ad avoidance may be more important for advertisers than the attempt to maximize full attention.
  • Effectiveness is closely related to how much of an ad is visible and for how long, but other factors can be equally important: clear moments of branding, such as showing the logo, increase the attention of the public.

It is not just the full gaze that has value: even ads in peripheral vision can increase sales because the way of looking has also changed (we also talked about the Google SERP, with the Pinball Pattern). In fact, ads that had full gaze led to only slightly higher sales increases than ads in peripheral vision. And so, rather than aiming for full attention at any cost, the biggest victory for marketers is to avoid total avoidance, where the public looks elsewhere or goes directly away.

Context is king

No less important is the role played by the device and the platform on which the ads appear, to the point that the study reworks the classic expression of web communication summarizing that “Context is king“. The focus offers broadly comparable data on both in-social feeds and in the pre-roll proposal on smartphones, but TV ads get significantly more attention than both forms when viewed on a mobile device.

Creativity is key

It is therefore possible to apply these analyses also in practice to give greater value to your investments in advertising.

The first thing any marketer needs to know is that the key factors to achieve the goals are creativity and the content in which he lives. The study on the Attention Economy allowed us to redefine “the way we measure, plan and buy media” and, working with Google and Youtube, Jiyoung Kim identified three key elements to attract attention and ultimately the performance of videos:

  1. Creative intelligence.
  2. Creative tests.
  3. Thinking like a creator.

Starting with creative intelligence

There is a direct and undeniable correlation between campaign performance and the effectiveness of creativity, but the critical aspect is to understand what makes your creativity effective. According to the author, today brands “can use artificial intelligence, machine learning and data science to understand the creative elements that drive media performance and optimize their resources accordingly”.

What is considered an “effective” creativity will evolve in parallel with the demands of consumers and marketing professionals must learn to navigate this evolution compared to their media activity in real time.

By associating Google’s Video Intelligence API outputs and data on the Youtube campaign performance of selected customers, Dentsu’s data scientists were able to discover five suggestions for a more effective creativity:

  1. The placement of the logo is important. If you are developing resources that you can skip, it is best to avoid placing the logo or brand name next to the “Skip Ad” button, putting it in a more prominent and visible position.
  2. Give the viewer a clear next step. Simple CTAs are enough to keep the spectators on the planned path.
  3. Using different frames to keep attention levels high. Videos, voiceovers and dynamically shot text capture attention and stimulate action.
  4. Shorter formats can help promote offerings. When they discover the presence of a discount or an offer, viewers tend to stop watching and acting.
  5. Using your sonic brands immediately. If we consider using a jingle or some other sound tagging, it is appropriate to put it in the foreground in the ad, when it is more likely to attract people’s attention.

I 5 elementi centrali per una creatività efficace

Accepting creative tests

Jiyoung Kim then invites to take advantage of the creative tests to understand how the quality of the ads affects sales, purchase intention and ROI, especially in a scenario where the tools available to consumers to jump have increased, ignore or block ads and therefore it is even more critical to be able to intercept their attention.

In support of this thesis, the Chief Digital Officer recalls the case of a customer of Carat – operating in the packaged consumer goods sector – that has put the company in front of the challenge of stimulating the consideration of purchases within a crowded vertical. The experimentation used Google’s Video Experiment tool to identify opportunities to optimize and refine video creativity to maximize results, and so the team discovered some interesting aspects:

  • The videos that advertise the “softness” of the products have increased the consideration of purchase among women by 6.9%.
  • The creativity that presents the product as “premium” has generated an increase of 6.1% of the consideration of purchase among men and has generated the highest increase (6.3%) in the overall consideration of purchases among all demographic data of the public.
  • From the point of view of frequency, the exposure of a viewer to an ad twice generated the largest increase in the consideration of purchase and the results of the impact of the brand were stronger on mobile devices.

Actionable test results like these “are just a snapshot of what you can do when brands make experimentation a part of their process“. Regardless of the vertical sector of the brand, a test-and-learn approach provides “real-time media lesson teams that allow them to have informed conversations with creative teams about what works, what doesn’t, and how they can collaboratively leverage that information to get incremental ROI“.

Thinking and acting as content creator

“Advertising spendings will always be a key element to make sure that a brand is in the right place at the right time with the right message“, is Jiyoung Kim’s premise, but for some brands, “presenting yourself as a creator within your own channel could also be a great opportunity to further engage viewers.

The goal should be to develop content just as a Youtube creator would, keeping in mind some key elements:

  • Youtube is a relationship platform, regardless of whether a brand chooses to create, edit, or collaborate on video content. A certain level of commitment is needed to develop and produce effective content and to ensure constant engagement with fans and commentators, which is crucial for continuous success.
  • To create authentic relationships, a brand’s Youtube content needs to be aligned and deeply consistent with its values. The advice is to be net in the message to convey in the value offered to the desired audience, also trying to collaborate with the right creators in the right way.
  • The SEO of video content and detectability are huge components to the success of winning in this field: it is essential that brands deepen the insights and trends of the public to know the topics of content, creator partners, opportunities on the market, demographic impacts and more.

It is time to really take advantage of all channels

In conclusion, the article points out that the COVID-19 pandemic has “reinforced the need for marketing professionals to be flexible and able to quickly change creativity according to the needs and demands of consumers”.

Sticking to the standard principles is likely not to affect any more, as consumers flock to OTT and streaming platforms like never before: so, “it is imperative for marketing professionals to understand how to best gain the attention and guide the engagement by taking advantage of the innovative and data-driven benefits provided by these channels”.

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