Why it’s time for marketers to sit up and pay attention to ‘attention’

Attention is earned by marketers when they truly try to build an understanding of consumer needs through a potent combination of thoughtfulness, strategic intent and – most importantly – empathy. Attention is critical, says Anisha Iyer, chief executive officer at OMD India, since “attention is linked to better brands and business outcomes.”

The late Thich Nhat Hanh – world-renowned spiritual leader and Zen Master, also known as the father of mindfulness – once said: “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”

These wise words extend beyond spirituality to define one of the most limited but in-demand currencies of the modern world.

And yet, when it comes to advertising, we seem to treat attention as an expendable resource much too often. Two minutes of someone’s workday, half a minute of their free time, two seconds of their frantic morning commute – all of these describe an important part of someone’s life, a slice that once cut off cannot be returned.

But if you can use those two minutes or those 20 seconds to hold them, to stop them, to intrigue them, to draw them in, then you have received from them the greatest gift your brand will ever know – their time and their attention.

The power and importance of attention

This attention – so precious and crucial – must be considered with the utmost care, not only because it is in short supply, but also because it is by no means owed to us advertisers and brands. We earn it when we truly try to build an understanding of consumer needs through a potent combination of thoughtfulness, strategic intent and – most importantly – empathy. This rings especially true in these times of reduced attention spans, numerous distractions and strong disengagement.

And because consumer attention is fragmented across moments of the day and touchpoints, measurement of performance is more vital than ever. While marketers commonly refer to metrics such as viewability, our industry has not been intentional about planning with attention, which conceals the potential to effectively determine better performance and, in turn, allows marketers to make better decisions faster.

The potential to plug multiple metric gaps

While we are all in the business of attention, and attention has always been a key parameter for content creation and storytelling in the advertising and marketing space, it has barely been seen as tangible or measurable. If anything, attention has been central to planning and strategy, but has still been confined to the shadows, remaining a subjective and abstract concept of sorts – lacking the metrics to commit to it before.

Much falls between the cracks of the metrics our industry heavily depends on. And brands that don’t get the results they paid for are increasingly frustrated. When there is so much potential to craft media mixes in a well-informed, well-thought-out manner, why is advertising still rife with inflated numbers, misleading data, clumsy media buying and shot-in-the-dark content creation?

Scope to learn and evolve

Attention as a concept isn’t tough to understand, but requires discipline and foresight to measure.

Its implementation has been tucked away for much too long, when in fact it is already under deep and extensive study in everything from marketing to artificial intelligence (AI). Interestingly, the realm of attention is extremely nuanced. It isn’t confined to the seconds spent on a page or the forced unskippability of a video. It is driven by true engagement, voluntary time spent on a page, active eye interaction with a creative and so much more – making it the perfect metric to measure high-impact ad performance.

The promise of higher mental availability

Viewability may not be enough. Drawing from some of the work that has been done at OMD, there’s a lot more to attention than meets the eye. Through our partnered studies with Dr Karen Nelson-Field, we’ve realised that there is a strong link between attention and mental availability.

Mental availability is essentially the likelihood that when a purchase decision is being made, it is your brand that is top of mind as compared to the competitor brands on the market. This is a huge defining factor in brand success and is a valuable find. What’s interesting is that this isn’t merely a correlation. Higher attention propels mental availability.

And this consequently leads to higher brand recall, higher purchase intent and better conversion rates. Better advertising ROI is a win-win situation for everyone and epitomizes the precedence of quality over quantity. Your ad may have 100m views, but if only 72 of these views were voluntary and engaged, then your metrics are telling you almost nothing about the success of your strategy.

Nelson-Field also says that adjustments in attention will prove to be a powerful tool in a planner’s arsenal, enabling more structured, predictive budgeting.

If attention adjustment takes center stage, brands will also need to be much better equipped to negotiate their spending on low-attention media. On the flip side, media sellers will be able to leverage their high-attention inventory and justify costs in the planning and impact assessment stages.

And this isn’t just about immediate outcomes – attention also impacts ad decay, so it’s clear that the more attention audiences are investing in your ads, the longer your brand will remain in their minds.

Attention is thus linked to better brands and business outcomes. And the truth of the matter is, if you’re not tapping into mental availability as a key driver of your brand’s success, then you’re essentially planning for the success of your competitor. For every instance that your brand doesn’t come to mind, it is probably your competitors’ brands that do – a fact that can be turned around by leveraging the value of attention and understanding the attention performance of your media mix.

The future of respectful advertising

From where we stand today – in a cookie-less world where consumers are vocal and assertive about their privacy rights – data needs to be more valuable and less wasteful, with more granularity in media planning and higher accountability and respect not just for data privacy but also for the audience’s time, energy and attention.

So whether it’s eye-tracking data or an analysis of the actions taken after an ad is served, it’s time to give real human attention the attention it deserves. The more we study this rich metric, the more we will realize that it absolutely cannot take on a cookie-cutter approach.

Does this make it too complex for implementation? Quite the contrary. In fact, the more we dive into the nitty-gritty of attention, the more granular, accurate and precise the solutions will become. No more excuses, fewer loopholes and significantly reduced ‘hit-and-miss’ planning.

The beauty of attention is that unlike viewability (impressions, for instance), not all attention is considered the same.

Attention is fleeting, and that’s exactly why it becomes doubly important to earn it for the long run. Brands and agencies have long been trying to build memorable campaigns, merely focusing on creating a big splash. But not all of these are effective in catching and retaining attention, which is why brands need to sit down and dive deep into the attention performance of their media mix.

Yes, earning attention to advertising can be a challenge. But once you’ve earned it, you’re poised for growth.

Anisha Iyer is chief executive officer at OMD India.