The Economist thinks attention metrics are the future but other media players aren’t convinced time-based buying is the way to get there

The Economist wants to go from selling ads based on time to actually creating branded content using attention-based metrics but its peers aren’t sure it’s the digital publishing metric of the future.

The publisher has joined the likes of the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal in measuring not just whether an ad is seen or not but for how long. What makes The Economist’s “Attention Buy” foray different is that it’s the first to offer advertisers the opportunity to buy those slices of attention in-app and online.

“Attention metrics and viewability are certainly a step in the right direction, but they are merely the first step in the journey towards trading on user attention,” said the publisher’s global head of revenue for the publisher’s digital products Ashwin Sridhar, who launched the buying model earlier this month with one as yet unnamed luxury advertiser.

The digital media publishing metric of the future

Working with analytics partners Chartbeat and Moat Analytics, The Economist tracks active time view – only counting a view when an ad is in view and the reader is actively engaged, i.e typing or scrolling up and down the page. Only those impressions that generate over 5 seconds of active view time will count towards the attention buy. So far so FT; what separates the two models is that The Economist is also capping attention on per impressions basis at 30 seconds, thereby protecting advertisers from the diminishing return on the uplift of brand equity metrics over time – “we don’t think there is any merit on the ad being on the screen beyond 30 seconds if the user hasn’t taken action,” explained Sridhar.

How this works in practice is that advertisers hand over a range of formats; two attention packages, one called mass exposure and another dubbed mass impact. It then works with its technology partners to identify which ad units appear on what section of the site as well as where on a page will generate longer view times before optimising the campaign based on those learnings.

The placements are also primed to balance performance and time in order to get click throughs as well as viewing times. It all happens dynamically; so if an infographic in an article is getting a lot of engagement for example, The Economist’s model could ensure that ads appear below the fold as that’s where readers are spending a lot of their time. For now, only display media can be bought in this way, although the publisher expects it to come to video and its native content at some point.

The buying model can be traced back to the time guarantee stamped on the publisher’s inventory in its digital editions, whereby sponsored posts are guaranteed up to 750 hours of viewing time. It was done in response to the rise in advertisers wanting to optimise their buys using viewbaility, though given the lack of measurement standards it felt that it wasn’t a proxy for quality. More importantly, the publisher found that while ads below the fold are more likely to be in view, they have 31 per cent more time spent on, meaning that advertisers that are buying its inventory using viewability are ultimately getting less time with its readers.

“We had a case where an advertiser was coming to us asking for viewable impressions and we said look you lost with our readers and during that same period your competition wasn’t focused on viewability,” revealed Sridhar. “Not focusing on viewbaility hadn’t changed their media plan with us in any way but they did get more time – they’re stealing time from the publisher because they’re not asking for viewability.”

Right time, wrong model

Some publishers like The Telegraph want viewbaility to become a more premium currency they can trade on, whereas The Economist is adamant time-based buying is the way to charge more its ads. It’s dependent on several interlocking factors, with one of the more prominent being whether the publisher has a paywall or not. The argument being that a media owner like The Economist, which does have a paywall, will have more readers likely to spend more time on articles they have paid for compared to a publisher that lets people in for free. The title claims an average dwell time of seven minutes, 29 seconds per site visit, and in-app this rises to 45 minutes, 20 seconds at the weekend.

“There’s a correlation between publishers who have paywalls and publishers for whom a time-based model will work,” said Sridhar. “That’s not to say you need to have a paywall to work, it just means that those publications have specialised content. I think the fact that you have immersive, specialised content means you’re more likely to have a paywall.”

Google and Facebook own the majority of the display network inventory and this will surely increase. At the same time ad blocking is on the rise. A recent report highlighted the rise of attention deficit success stories – the 16-second billion-dollar business like Buzzfeed and Vox. Consequently, buying based on ads is a means to differentiate to steal share in a declining market, though it cannot realistically be seen as a long-term strategy, argue some publishers and media agencies.

‘Time based trading is just one step to where ultimately need to go to,” The Guardian’s commercial director Nick Hewat told The Drum at its Digital Upfront last month.

“All the attitudinal stuff [responses] to advertising are much harder to measure than the behavioural stuff. The behavioural aspects – things like time spent, page views, click throughs, ect – we can all do that now. The attitudinal responses are harder but we’re going to have to find ways to prove that. It’s not easy but we passionately believe that – from an advertiser perspective- we’re there to make sure that someone will see your ad and that you can get their attention but we just have to do that in ways that don’t kill the experience for theirs ads. That’s the trade.”

A proxy for value

The Economist admits its shift to time-based buying will be slow and can see it co-existing alongside CPM trading for quite some time. Indeed, one unnamed advertiser has already asked it to reallocate a quarter of its budget to time-based buys on a test basis.

“There will no doubt be premium audiences that dwell on content for longer with The Economist and WSJ who have trialled this have, but this also usually means that they have a greater loyalty for this content and are more likely to pay for access, in particular is this means an ad free model,” said Matt Redman, head of content at Wunderman, which works with News UK.

Despite the concerns, it’s likely that the digital publishing media metric of the future will include some attention-based metric. A report from last year by Digital Content Next (formerly the Online Publishers Association) found that the stat publishers most frequently share with advertisers is average time spent per visit, with 80 per cent of the 25 media owners surveyed already using time-based metrics and 20 per cent planning to do so.

Sridhar is all too aware some of his peers don’t harbour the same high hopes he does for attention-based metrics and thinks the trading model is a stepping-stone to being able to unequivocally show the effectiveness of its ads. “We’ve done a very good job of capturing user attention with our products,” he continued.

“The next evolution in advertising is to give the response time to advertisers. A step beyond that is working with advertisers to further that proposition so we go from just offering a slice [of attention] to saying how can we work with you to create a brand message that’s clearly marked. It’s about how can we work with an advertiser to make sure that slice of attention that we’ve carved up for that advertiser could be used in the best possible way.’

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