Attention is not impact, so what next?

There’s a lot of buzz about attention being a potential proxy measure for mental availability and it’s commendable that we as an industry are taking a much closer examination of how media delivers quality and reach: however, what you see is not always what you get, writes Peter Pynta. 

Visual attention only correlates with 15% of long-term memory encoding; which seems to be a consistent finding across neuroscience studies. Science has told us that marketers need to keep searching for the other factors that contribute to the remaining 85 % like context, creative, emotion, salience, clutter, frequency, sonic branding, storytelling and of course the role of the subconscious. The industry needs to refocus its attention on more finely tuned metrics of mental availability and importantly effectiveness.

Awareness leads to growth

The industry is coming to terms with the fact that there are better ways to measure effectiveness and as marketers know, real-world results will always be the end-game. Measuring eyes on pixels is a far more verified measure of a human view than reach and impressions. If we can get heads and eyes moving towards an ad, it’s far more likely to work. However, award-winning cognitive scientist, Dr Ali Goode, worked together with Thinkbox in the UK to look at whether there is a little more attention needed on attention.

Always ask questions

Just because something is commercially viable at the time, doesn’t mean that it’s the best answer within the big picture. Goode summed up the scientific literature of attention recently on stage and pondered whether the approaches that are born out of eye tracking and the digital age work in other forms of media.

A variety of questions were raised. How does visual attention fit into mental availability and human behaviour? Is the dwell time of eyeballs on an ad the most active measure of attention, or is it still too passive? These are questions that neuroscientists and psychologists have been asking for some time.

Speaking with other industry heavyweights, Nickie Scriven from Zenith Media, commented that “In our current environment with advertising overload and increasing consumer appetite for using ad-blocking technology to combat the overwhelming number of advertising messages consumers receive, should the industry really be pushing visual attention as the Holy Grail? If you see a flashing ad, does the eye lazily drawn towards it mean the ad is effective? I’m not so sure.”

Take another look

Sometimes we have to look outside of our own field of knowledge in order to advance our own. The dominant idea of attention in neuroscience used to be that it’s like a spotlight, choosing what to focus on, guiding what people care about, and helping them to make decisions. However, the field has recognised that attention is more multisensory and complex – and it doesn’t always equate to intention.

People sometimes fail to notice salient unexpected objects in front of them because their attention is otherwise occupied, a phenomenon known as inattentional blindness. Selective attention is also the process that enables people to tune out loud voices to listen to focus on a conversation at a cocktail party.

Perceptual load theory also explains that we have a finite amount of attention, which is spread out across all of our senses. Any person who has suddenly tuned into their favourite song in the car, only to find they have no recollection of how they got to where they are on a familiar route can identify with these scientific theories. Those who have struggled to read what’s on their screen while sitting in a loud office have also lived them.

Scriven added that for her real attention and top of mind awareness is gained through subconscious processing and a consistency of presence, so frequency is really important here. But there is no one size fits all when it comes to frequency and industries that operate in low involvement categories require higher frequency, so when consumers are in market to buy, their brands are top of mind when it comes to awareness and consideration.

There is more to attention than meets the eye

Our auditory system also constantly operates and gives us alerts for things we need to pay attention to. It makes sense when you consider our hunter-gatherer roots. If our ancestors were gathered around a campfire cooking a meal, their auditory system would still be running in the background, picking up alerts such as the sound of a predator approaching. If we were measuring their attention by their eye gaze back then, we would have completely underestimated the power of the subconscious mind to alert them to other types of stimuli and refocus their attention at any moment.

The Hear and Now study by Radiocentre also revealed that listeners are able to absorb the detail of radio ads when they are participating in tasks or activities as effectively as when they are engaged in other audio listening or TV viewing experiences. In fact, advertising that directly related to tasks or activities in which listeners were participating increased the long-term memory encoding of details in the advertising by 22%. Their eye gaze could have been anywhere, but the auditory system was playing a part in the neuro-impact of the advertisement.

Think deeper

If we know from science that visual attention only correlates with 15% of long-term memory encoding, then we need to think about the other factors at play. The OMA has been able to integrate the Impact of a glance into a whole measurement system – to enhance traditional metrics like reach and frequency with long-term memory encoding and emotional factors. Memory encoding measures of all the factors that contribute to the storage of marketing communications – the ultimate influence on consumer behaviour in an economic decision-making moment.

So, how many vacant stares are we tracking with visual attention metrics? How could the feelings, sounds, and stories consumers know about brands be undervalued if we over-index our decisions on where eyeballs are gazing?

We’re getting closer

Attention is one very welcome phase in the evolution of marketing. But while others talk about it, science has shown we can measure the drivers of real-world behaviour. And it’s worth remembering there is a whole body of advanced scientific research available for those who appreciate that a complex problem requires digging a little deeper to find sustainable long-term solutions.

Peter Pynta is CEO APAC at Neuro-Insight


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