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Attention is getting a lot of attention. Media bandwidth is compressing to the point we have no additional capacity for media consumption without risking sleep deprivation. The impact of our always-on media lives is prompting people to filter, block, opt out and turn off. The constant binging, pinging and haptic vibrating vies for our attention; the endless scrolling and digital retargeting tries to force our focus, while the hyperbolic headlines lure us into clicks. It’s taken a toll on ad tolerance.
Do we really have the attention span of goldfish [a myth, by the way] or has our ability to concentrate simply peaked? The attention economy has sought to capture and commoditize our attention for years. The result? The lowest level in ad trust ever; the highest level of ad disengagement ever; the weakest return on ad investment ever. Attention buying has hit a wall. As an industry that relies on attention, we need to rethink how we get it – especially since, as Faris Yakob explains, “We haven’t left time for ourselves and are seeing now a counter trend of digital detoxing and mindfulness.”1
Earning attention by targeting interests and context
Rethinking attention starts with a focus on earning it. That means getting back to a customer-centric view of media and the human factors that influence receptivity. If we want to solve the attention problem, we need to acknowledge there’s an interest problem. People aren’t interested in interruption, ads and noise that takes them away from what actually interests them.
Content and media environments play a critical role in improving attention. Aligning targeting to interests and context will improve ad attention and relevance. This isn’t a new media principle; it’s just one sidelined by third-party cookies. But, as those cookies deprecate and audience fragmentation continues across channels, it’s logical to target interests and context, which will improve ad attention across reach, intent or personalization.
The industry is busy rethinking attention measurement, improving ad environments by reducing ad loads and frequency, making ads less interruptive as well as improving the quality of both ads and content.
Priming the audience and brand building
Earning attention begins with priming audiences before they are in the active stage of the customer journey. Personalization has its place, but we’ve been sacrificing priming for intent-based targeting and performance. Priming is where brand building reigns supreme – making emotional connections that inspire, provoke, surprise and align with people and their values, interests and identity. This is the space where brands can stand out for their point of view, identity and actions.
Enhancing the media mix by integrating paid, owned and earned (POE)
Across paid, owned and earned [POE] media, diversifying and integrating channels will improve the ability to scale attention. While earned and owned won’t replace paid media efforts, equal consideration must be given to how they play with paid efforts – especially from a category perspective. For example, IPA’s TouchPoints found that “unpaid media alone adds 0.9 per cent market share growth versus paid media 2.6 per cent. But adding owned media to the mix increases the business effects of a paid campaign by 13 per cent.”2 Kantar’s cross-channel effectiveness and category research has found that 75 per cent of total brand impact comes from non-paid touchpoints across all categories, with some categories like telecom and tech having more paid-media benefits. In contrast, FMCG categories see more earned media benefits. 3
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Escaping walled gardens
When it comes to attention, walled garden growth is slowing. This will increase the cost of ads while diminishing returns. If we want to earn attention and align to interests, we need to step outside of these walled gardens. Roughly 70 per cent of ad investment goes to them, while 67 per cent of consumer digital engagement lies outside of them. The allure of walled gardens is the relative ease of ad management and measurement, not the quality of environment. 4
Staying relevant with personal prime time
People have complete control over media time and space. The traditional broadcast prime time of biggest audiences and most expensive ad rates no longer applies in an on-demand world. Instead, personal prime times [PPTs] bring media closer to people’s interests and context. Google research shows that being relevant to people’s interests is perhaps the most critical thing for your content and ads. Relevance puts the onus on brands to create messages that target interests, time of day and, for some brands, location. As we move away from third-party cookies and media comes back around to being more contextual, moment marketing – taking advantage of ongoing events – will get more media closer to the right time/place/message.
Increasing media intimacy
Closer proximity between brands and people is driving media intimacy, along with the need to use channels and create media products that provide more personalized ad environments to improve attention and contextual connection. The more intimate media becomes, the greater the need to prioritize consent, quality content and value creation. As third-party identifiers [3PIDs] deprecate, the focus on first-party data will increase media intimacy through owned channels and publisher partnerships.
Growth in audio media, newsletters, messaging apps and subscriptions are examples of media formats and business models getting more intimate. Newsletters have been one of the faster-growing media vehicles over the last few years. They’re particularly taking off for content-publishing brands, independent bloggers, influencers and the B2B thought leadership space. Newsletters work well to grow audience, provide exclusivity, support premiumization or deliver personalization.
In 2020, streaming audiences tuned into subscription-based services 62 per cent of the time versus 32 per cent for ad-supported streamers, according to PwC.5 Subscriptions can take any form, blurring the lines between media, product and business model. Any opted-in/permission-based serial offering is technically a subscription, whether it’s a podcast, YouTube channel, newsletter, curated sampling box or meal delivery. Subscriptions deliver their goods to the intimacy of our mobile phones and homes.
Turning the sound on
How many of us have caught ourselves watching TV with our ears? In a time of media multitasking, it’s vital that visual ads also get our aural attention because the chances are you’ve heard the ad but not actually seen it. The growth in audio media is moving attention to our ears. Audio formats like podcasts, audiobooks and music streaming are proving that attention isn’t just about eyeballs. Visual media fatigue has played a role in the rise of audio media, but it goes deeper. Audio media creates a highly emotional relationship – reflecting people’s tastes, moods and emotions.
For this reason, audio media can connect with its audience and captivate attention on a deeper level. Audio media doesn’t compete for our attention in the same way visual media does – it’s a more accessible companion to daily life. Spotify, for instance, has captured and sustained the attention of people by building trust and personalizing content around moods and tastes.
Shifting to social shopping
When The Washington Post features a must-read article about skinny jeans, you know we’ve reached peak consumerism. Social shopping is helping brands engage and convert shoppers anytime, anywhere and on any device, merging online/offline discovery and experience. For example, New York Magazine and BuzzFeed both have affiliate shopping platforms and sponsored social shopping articles.
As channels evolve, media is becoming retail and retail is becoming media. Shopping integration, like that offered by Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest, turns our feeds into shopping browsers. Out of home advertising can create on-the-go shopping, while physical stores can turn window shopping into instant gratification – both using QR code integration. Greater personalization and data precision turn direct mail into customized shopping experiences with unique offers and turn order fulfillment into opportunities to reinforce desire. Brands like Net-a-Porter use video to create exclusive, hyper-limited time offers to stimulate fear of missing out. If you don’t click, the offer is gone. In Asia, live-stream shopping is taking off in a big way. Deeper integration via virtual reality [VR], augmented reality [AR] and image recognition [IR] is bringing brand, customer experience and shopping closer together across owned and paid channels, with the potential to create word of mouth and deeper engagement.
Connecting with experiential and editorial retail
As shoppable media mainstreams and digital transformation increases noise and product abundance, brands turn to customer experience and premiumization levers like editorial to differentiate and connect with audiences. People have always gone to content for information, inspiration and entertainment – it’s the language of media. As a result, content is becoming as important as any other service or product a brand offers. It also further integrates with retail. STORY, a retail brand founded in 2011, was an early exemplar of editorial retail, proving that a physical store could be conceived of, curated and edited like a magazine, make its money on media sponsorships and turn over store concepts every few months. STORY’s founder, Rachel Shechtman, wanted to breathe new life into retail spaces by treating them like media channels to create more value for customers and a greater return on square footage. More recently, Ben Kaufman launched CAMP, an experiential family play store. Experiential and editorial retail concepts are only getting started, with major brands looking at how to integrate them into their own spaces both physically and digitally.
As editorial continues to factor strongly in brand ecosystems, publishers will offer new native formats and more diverse sponsorship opportunities. In addition, editorial and first-party data will work to keep audience attention, opening the door to greater precision and personalization.
Turning the page
Third-party cookies, using personally identifiable information and tracking us across the internet, have played a significant role in the downward turn in attention. The deprecation of 3PIDs will lift the entire system, giving publishers the power to build quality targeting identifiers and ad environments based on their relationships with their audiences. Media partnerships and second-party data will play heavily into the post-cookie reality, bringing environment, interests and data together in new and more valuable ways for both people and brands. The end of 3PIDs provides ample opportunity to turn the page on attention and how we use media.
Media is more complex than it’s ever been. As peoples’ relationships with media keep evolving in line with technology, media capabilities are becoming more dynamic, responsive and personal. We need to keep reassessing channel capabilities and synergies to improve ad performance and ecosystem integration. We’ll need to reorient our thinking towards earning attention – considering ad environment and receptivity factors like intimacy, trust, interests and context.
While paid media will always be essential to driving growth, it’s nothing without earned and owned efforts that have a critical influence on market share. First-party data combined with media partnerships will improve relevancy and help us reach beyond walled gardens and into a full spectrum of cross-channel opportunities. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to the perfect media mix. Each brand needs to identify what works best for its audience, category, positioning and competitive situation. As people rethink the role of media in their lives, we also need to review media to improve how we connect with audiences to captivate and convert them.
This is an abridged version of the article, “Media Rethink,” which appears in the latest issue of INCITE.
1 Faris, Y. “The qualia of attention – ignore consumer engagement at your peril,” Campaign, March 08, 2019.
2 Binet, L., Field P. “Marketing in the Digital Age,” IPA Touchpoints, 2016.
3 Power of Connection 2.0, Kantar, 2010.
4 “Preparing for a world without third-party identifiers,” Epsilon, October 2020.
5 Peterson, T. Digiday, “Subscription-based streamers outstrip ad-supported services’ share of watch time”, June 7, 2021.
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