Why ad buyers (and sellers) need to pay more attention to viewer attention


By Yan Liu, CEO, TVision

Like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, we all recognize that oftentimes the TV is on, but no one is in the room to hear or see it. And yet some ad buyers continue to rely on a metric that fails to account for this. 

To mix metaphors, buyers who are still focusing on the traditional ad buying ecosystem can’t see the reality of the forest because they’re too busy counting all those supposed viewers that can’t see or hear them — all those unseeing, unhearing trees.

Reaching beyond ‘reach’

How did we get here? To paraphrase author John Green, slowly at first — and then almost overnight. 

In the 1950s, when there were just three major television networks playing to a captive audience, viewers were exposed to about 300 commercials a day, which had a reach of 90 percent. There was less competition for attention, both on the TV screen and elsewhere in the home, unlike now, when there are almost 500 scripted original programs on TV and more than 860 over-the-top (OTT) apps available.

Since viewers had fewer choices of what to watch, and little control over how or when they watched programs, the math for ad buyers was relatively simple. Ratings, a broad measurement of the number of households tuned to a particular broadcast during a particular window, was the yardstick for the assumed effectiveness of ads that aired during the same broadcast — and therefore the cost of those ads. An ad that aired during a program with an audience of 10 million was more expensive than an ad that aired during a program with an audience of 5 million, based on the assumption that twice as many viewers saw it.

But now, with so many for TV and OTT programs available, almost nothing is the same.

Viewer attention: A new way of looking at things

In the 21st century, viewer attention is the true measure of an ad’s success.

Yet, viewers’ attention is more difficult to capture than ever. In the U.S., adults spend large portions of their day connected to screens, but the median duration of online attention to those screens is mere seconds. Television viewing is now largely a personalized, on-demand experience. Moreover, individuals often split their attention between two screens at once. More than 80 percent of the TV audience now uses a second screen while watching TV. 

So, while the TV in the living room might still be on all evening, as it probably was in the 1950s, family members are likely scattered all over the house at the same moment, viewing different content or games on their personal devices.

In short, at a time when TV viewers are so easily distracted, an ad-buying system that still leans exclusively on ratings is obsolete. Since ad buyers can no longer assume that audiences are engaging with specific content, they must optimize their campaigns with person-level attention data, to ensure that TV dollars are not wasted. 

As Paolo Provinciali, vp of media and data for Anheuser Busch, puts it: “If marketing is about reaching people with a brand message in order to drive an action or perception change, we need to make sure they are paying attention to that message if we want it to drive impact. We can’t be optimizing against empty rooms and a distracted audience.”

Viewers aren’t just ignoring ads — they’re avoiding them

Getting eyes on ads would be challenging enough in an era of rapidly diminishing attention spans and ever-expanding viewing options, but the problem is actually worse than that: Technology enables viewers to actively avoid ads, and over the past decade, numerous studies tell us the vast majority of adults skip them when they can.

The good news is that there is a lot of programming that captures significant viewer attention from specific audiences. And, in even better news, creative ads, in context, are still highly effective at engaging audiences. With person-level attention data, ad buyers can find the right audience — one that’s paying a lot of attention — across linear and CTV. 

On the other hand, ratings do not always correlate with attention. Often advertisers can find greater value in a show with moderate ratings and high attention. That combination results in far higher ROI. A smaller audience can often deliver better results than a larger audience — as long as it’s the right audience.

A new frontier of possibilities

Fortunately for ad buyers and sellers, the industry is moving to standardize the measurement of viewer attention at a micro level.  

Many premiere TV and advertising measurement companies, such as Oracle Data Cloud’s Moat Reach, Xandr, VideoAmp and iSpot, have incorporated person-level attention data into their measurement programs. The industry is moving towards attention as an additional qualitative currency for ad buying and selling. The Attention Council, an industry group composed of leading advertisers at some of the biggest brands, along with next-generation measurement providers, is also focused on standardizing cross-platform attention measurement.

Savvy buyers and sellers want to be able to measure TV, CTV and digital in the same manner — and that capability is at hand. All that’s required is a willingness for brands to partner with media sellers to use the same standard — which shouldn’t be a hard sell, given that both stand to gain. 

Provinciali, at Anheuser Busch, says he’s already seen where this can go: “Brands and media sellers can mutually benefit. This should be a collaborative process to evolve to an attention-based media industry.”

For brands, incorporating attention data into buys means each ad placement has greater value than buys based on traditional ratings. For media sellers, a finely tuned attention metric helps give more demonstrable value to programming as those ratings fall.


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