The Time to Set a Standard for Attention is Now

By Kunal Nagpal, Chief Business Officer, InMobi 

What is the value of an ad nobody sees? The answer is zero, obviously. Or it should be zero. But in a marketplace without a standard for attention metrics, the value of attention is all over the map. And that’s assuming attention is even measured to begin with. For a moment though let’s step back and think about why attention metrics are so important in the first place. Simply put, while viewability is a measure of an opportunity for an ad to be seen, attention measures whether the consumer saw, liked or engaged with the ad.

No surprise then that in recent years, advertisers have expressed a strong interest in using attention metrics to a greater degree. According to November 2022 data from the IAB, 36% of buy-side advertising decision-makers plan to focus more on attention metrics this year. Hard to argue with that. Why would you want to pay more for desktop real estate that’s clearly less valuable because it’s located where consumers are less likely to see it? Similarly, advertisers don’t want to pay for a mobile ad impression on a phone that’s face-down on the table.

A comment from a buy-side client in Cannes was very telling.  Roughly 60 cents of every campaign dollar they spend goes to intermediate vendors. That seems rather high, but then add to it the fact that up to 70% of the ads will never be seen by the consumers. It all just means advertisers spend more to get ads delivered and then be seen than they do on the ads themselves. That’s nuts!

Attention also isn’t just a binary question — did consumers see the ad, or not — it’s also, on the flip side, a jumping off point to measure campaign performance.

Attention metrics tell advertisers a lot about the relative value propositions of different publishers. They also help advertisers understand the performance of a specific ad placement—something that’s critical for desktop media buys, but admittedly less important on mobile, where there’s only one ad unit. And then they can also be used to better understand the performance of a particular piece of the creative.

Looking at it from the point of view of the sell-side, these questions remain important to the publishers too. Attention metrics inform decisions about pricing, how many ad units to offer, and perhaps most important of all, a precise understanding of the user’s true value to the advertiser.

Understanding attention has always been important. But at this moment, as the industry grapples with so much uncertainty around identity, it’s vital for publishers and advertisers to own their attention metrics, rather than relying on the big platforms to share those insights. Moreover, as mobile plays a bigger role in the media ecosystem, it’s important to develop new technology and methodologies for measuring attention inside the app — an area where there are a lot of exciting possibilities, but as of this writing, few solutions. Increasing investments to understand attention better is only one part of the equation though.

We need standards for attention metrics for buyers and sellers to transact in the marketplace because investments in understanding attention are only as valuable as the transactions buyers and sellers can make with that information. And here’s where we run into a problem. We don’t have attention as a standard currency that rolls up all these insights into something the marketplace can transact on. Without a common currency for attention, the buy-side and the sell-side are betting on marketing and PR efforts more than independently verified technology underneath, leaving a lot of value on the table.

Of course, ad tech has been here before with the debate over a standard for viewability. It’s important to debate these questions as an industry, but these debates are time sensitive. While the industry spent years debating a standard for viewability, value leaked out of the ecosystem, hurting publishers, advertisers, and ad tech vendors. Ultimately, the IAB stepped in to set a standard, but the duration of the debate caused real damage in terms of lost time, wasted development cycles, credibility, and campaign performance.

In the end, we might need not just one standard, we need dozens.  There will be multiple lenses that we ask the same question: Did our message resonate with the audience in a way that drove them to take action? While there’s a benefit to standardizing attention metrics from the perspective of buying and selling media, it’s important not to lose sight of the overarching question. After all, an ad that grabs our attention doesn’t mean much if that attention can’t be directed toward a business goal.

I believe there will continue to be a debate about attention metrics, but let’s make it a quick one focused on standardizing access and measurement. We don’t need the perfect standard for attention but one that kicks off a workable standard to inform a common currency. And we need that standard or standards as soon as possible.