Digital Advertising’s Future Is About More Than Attention - S3knetwork
December 10, 2023

Digital Advertising’s Future Is About More Than Attention

As the online world inches ever closer to Google’s plan to stop supporting third-party cookies, the advertising industry is on the precipice of a new age. Marketers are deep into exploring new data signals that they can use to assess the performance and return of their ad campaigns. Each test run and exploration is designed to get ahead of cookie deprecation when it begins in earnest in Q1 2024.

Meanwhile, the media world has been focusing on the so-called “attention economy” and the competition for consumer engagement across channels and devices. This interest in attention, coupled with the need for stable non-cookie signals, has many marketers looking into ways that attention can function as a metric for measuring campaign performance.

While there’s a clear benefit here, marketers cannot adopt attention as the one metric to rule them all.

There is a great risk of attention becoming a binary view—either a consumer paid attention or didn’t—without incorporating other factors that can impact attention. For attention to matter, it needs to be used as part of a much broader strategy.

Paying For Attention
The challenge most marketers are dealing with right now is that the loss of cookies effectively removes their tried-and-true method of tracking online conversions. Without this, it’s very difficult to show that ad campaigns actually worked, and it also removes any opportunity to learn from the findings and build new optimization strategies. Without these insights, there are no solid performance models available.

Attention on the surface is golden because it can prove that a campaign was effective in holding a consumer’s interest. But as everyone knows, attention is hard to measure.

Ads are never the only thing within a consumer’s field of vision or environment. “Attention” is driven by other elements, including the context of the page an ad appears on, as well as things going on around the consumer in real life. Therefore, any binary yes/no measurement built around attention will be incomplete and offer very little utility.

Environmentally Conscious
Digital advertisers’ best bet for deploying an attention metric is to build it into a broader strategy that takes into account the various elements and contexts that can impact engagement.

The first step toward a wider, more inclusive understanding of attention is to look at the intersection between message creative, context (or page sentiment) and the overall quality of the environment (is it cluttered with extra ads?). In other words, brands need to get insight into how the environment translates into performance. Armed with that, brands and agencies can determine if the signal can be harnessed in future campaigns.

For example, an auto ad that appears on a review site littered with 15 or more ads may have low marks for attention and share of engagement, but it may still drive the highest performance or response rate. This may be because the ad creative aligns well with the content in terms of its timeliness, message or call to action.

Now, the brand can determine where that content falls in the buyer’s consideration journey and how that may have impacted performance. It’s likely that the low-attention, high-relevance, excellent performance trend can be repeated, but only if brands spot the correlation and take advantage of it going forward.

Meanwhile, a highly engaging ad that has a page to itself, without competition, is going to get much higher attention and engagement scores. It could also have different relevance scores depending on the environment, and performance may lag. Devices and channels play a big role here as well. Ads on mobile devices and CTV environments may have 100% of the screen space but also have frequency problems.

To assure both advertisers and brands, attention can’t be a black box metric. Viewability is a common metric in online advertising due to years of standards. Marketers are best served working with providers who can be crystal clear about which signals contribute to attention. The only way that attention is useful is if brands have a clear understanding of how these metrics differ across companies and then use that insight to understand their campaign performance.

Another important element for brands is deciding where to place attention in their measurement hierarchy. If brands optimize their campaigns toward only attention, they could be optimizing away from clicks, viewability or other individual metrics. For example, across multiple advertiser tests, my company has seen that ads running on “made for advertising” environments have high viewability, but that comes paired with the worst attention scores: These MFA sites have attention scores that are 50% worse than the top-quality environments.

Also, if brands optimize toward only CTR, without considering attention, the research shows these campaigns would optimize toward additional poor-quality environments, such as listicle pages. This would happen even though the attention score of these pages was well below that of the top-performing environments.

Overall, engaging content tends to draw the most attention. By looking at the complete picture, brands can begin to understand how certain publishers game the metrics to earn more impressions, as well as how different types of content can meet campaign KPIs.

Bringing Stability Into The Future
Broadly speaking, the biggest thing that marketers need to do right now is move toward an expanded set of metrics that can be used to judge performance without the identifier they’ve relied upon for decades.

Many marketers are putting their hopes in cookie substitutes and new identifiers. While these may provide some of the same levels of function and performance, they will simply lack the scale to be the comprehensive solutions that many marketers are vetting.

More metrics and more data—especially insights that will survive cookie deprecation and work across all browsers and environments—are going to make all the difference for brands and agencies in the near future. The real victory will come when brands and agencies start developing more detailed strategies that assess and weigh the interaction between creative, suitability and attention.

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