Why Meaningful Attention Matters

It’s more important than ever to measure the metrics that matter in a softening ad market

By Jeff Bander, Head of U.S., Eye Square

For decades, companies have invested tremendous resources to try to get inside the heads of their customers. What drives their decision-making? Why do they respond to one ad and not another? And how can a brand use that information to drive increased sales?

At the heart of each of these questions is attention: what causes a shopper to pay attention to a certain advertisement or product — to prioritize it over everything else around them?

Understanding attention and how to capitalize on it is only growing in importance. Both advertisers and consumers alike are feeling the squeeze of inflation and a prolonged downturn. Organizations that optimize their advertisements to maximize viewer attention will undoubtedly have a better chance of maintaining or improving performance in the months to come.

Until recently, brands relied on methods like surveys and focus groups to try to measure attention and connect it to sentiments and attitudes. Customer responses helped companies understand what was capturing attention and what wasn’t. But throughout all those years of research, these brands and advertisers failed to identify whether the attention was meaningful.

Meaningful attention involves viewer engagement, deep processing of stimuli, and improved comprehension. It connects attention directly to behaviors and actions. And in the context of retail and advertising, meaningful attention is connected most specifically to sales and ROI.

Here’s why it matters.

Meaningful attention leads to behavioral change

When we interact with a piece of content — in this case, an advertisement — we process that piece of content on multiple levels. The most basic, instinctual level (which some refer to as system 0) is direct perception. At system 1, we’re talking about our implicit feelings and emotional responses. And at system 2, we’re dealing with reflexive thoughts and cognition — our considered response to the content itself.

How can we tell if the attention at any of these levels is meaningful? The key is to tie each system to specific behaviors. In the era of social media and eCommerce, this is a matter of identifying the online shopping actions that demonstrate awareness, consideration, and action.

When a customer is paying meaningful attention, they begin by demonstrating awareness of the product or advertising. How much time is the product or advertisement in view while the customer is shopping or browsing social media? They begin considering the product once they click through to the product detail page. What percentage of shoppers are clicking through? These simple behavioral metrics clearly reveal how many customers are paying meaningful attention to the specific piece of content.

Behavioral change leads to action

It’s important to reiterate that emotions and sentiments play no part in understanding meaningful attention. Focusing on behavior helps brands keep their eye on the ball and make adjustments according to real, quantifiable data.

The single most important factor when it comes to measuring meaningful attention is action: did the shopper make a purchase? If the goal of an advertisement is to increase sales, that ad should be tested and measured according to its purchase power.

When an advertisement captures awareness, prompts consideration, and leads to a purchase, then by definition that advertisement draws meaningful attention. Awareness, consideration and action can’t be measured through emotion or sentiment — they can only be assessed directly as behaviors without being abstracted from the original environment.

What it means for brands and advertisers

This new definition of meaningful attention should lead to a significant shift for brands as they plot their eCommerce and marketing strategies. The days of taking customers at their word — gauging emotions through surveys and discussions — are over. We can only take an unbiased measurement of our content if we look at the customer’s actions.

To measure and understand meaningful attention, testing needs to be done in a live, natural environment without the customer knowing they’re being tested. Evaluating ads directly in context — whether on an eCommerce site or a social media platform — allows brands to draw a straight line from their advertising collateral to specific behaviors. After the shopper saw the ad, did they click through to the product information page? Did they make a purchase?

It’s a new era in marketing research. Brands and advertisers should be thrilled at the possibility to run real, productive tests and consistently improve their marketing collateral. Meaningful attention offers the possibility of finally getting inside the head of the shopper. We can’t afford to ignore it.