The Value of Attention in Ad Tech's New Era – Q&A with Gregor Smith, SmartFrame

In association with SmartFrame

Ahead of ATS London 2023, Gregor Smith, global advertising sales director, SmartFrame, outlines the importance of attention in a privacy-first world, the challenges around measuring this valuable currency, and how the emergence of new technologies will impact its application.

What are the biggest challenges advertisers currently face around engaging with the attention economy?

As we move towards the next evolution of digital advertising, the importance of metrics that are typically used to measure performance — CPMs and CTRs — have definitely started to be questioned. They do have some utility, so they're unlikely to be abandoned, but marketers and advertisers are increasingly looking beyond them to the idea of measuring attention. What's really interesting is that the attention economy is built on the premise that attention is very much a scarce resource: a recent Lumen study suggests that only six out of 100 ads are actually visible for a second or more. Advertising can only be effective if it's noticed by its audience, so understanding the ways in which different ad formats, placements, and other variables affect attention, and then determining which kinds of campaigns are likely to be more effective are both essential. With more channels, devices, and formats to choose from, it's easy to see why this information is more valuable than ever. 

Part of the appeal of understanding attention, I think, can be attributed to the shortcomings of existing metrics. For example, we might be able to determine that an ad is more viewable or gains more impressions than another, but this doesn't necessarily mean that it's getting more attention because of it. One of the key differences between the conventional performance metrics and the measurement of attention is that the latter is measured qualitatively rather than quantitatively. This means that the data on attention can’t be gathered on demand in the same way as it can with clicks and impressions, which poses a challenge to advertisers’ efforts to measure it.

How have changes to consumer behaviour shaped the attention economy in recent years?

Gregor Smith, global advertising sales director at SmartFrame

They've definitely had a significant impact. A key change we're all familiar with is the rise of mobile devices: the increasing use of smartphones and tablets has made it much easier for consumers to access information and media on the go, and this has led to an increasing competition for attention among advertisers. The growth of social media platforms, like Meta, Twitter, TikTok, has also very much changed the way that consumers interact with brands and consume content; while it has created new opportunities for advertisers to engage with their audiences, it has also increased competition for their attention. 

I think it’s also important to note that consumers now have much shorter attention spans, so they are less patient with longer, more complex messages. This has forced advertisers to adapt their campaigns to make them more concise and engaging. TikTok is a good example of this – many of the short form videos on the platform are six seconds long, or at least no longer than 15 seconds, which tends to suit its younger audience base. However, we have also seen an increase of ad avoidance: the growing use of ad blocking software and capacity to fast-forward through ad breaks on video on demand services has made it more difficult for advertisers to reach their target audience effectively. This has caused a shift towards more native advertising and content marketing, and given rise to the growth of contextual.

Finally, consumers increasingly expect personalised experiences from brands: the idea of a spray and pray approach where you might be on a publisher site where there are ten ads from different companies on one page just isn’t going to work. It doesn't work for the publisher anyway, because it makes the page look messy, but it also doesn't work from a consumer’s point of view, because there are too many messages and it’s unlikely that all of them will resonate. Overall, these changes in consumer behaviour have created a lot of challenges, but also opportunities for the advertising attention economy: advertisers are much more aware of these changes and how they can adapt their strategies accordingly in order to successfully reach and engage with their target audiences.

What technologies are currently being used to measure attention, and how effective are they?

As I’ve touched on, conventional metrics are quantitative – you can measure things like click through rate and impressions. Attention data, however, can’t be gathered on demand in the same way, so most of the studies that have been done to measure attention have centred around things like eye tracking in controlled conditions. Some of these studies have used front-facing cameras, particularly in mobile devices, although how easily this could be expanded to work on genuine ads in real-world environments while respecting user privacy still remains unclear. 

Attention will continue to attract interest, but it doesn’t have one universal measurement approach, and I think that is ultimately what it needs in order to be traded as a real KPI or metric. Some companies extrapolate potential results from data using AI, which is an interesting approach, but might not always be accurate. As we gain a greater understanding of the variables that make the greatest difference to performance, we should expect new ad formats to be adopted and older ones to be abandoned. I think we'll see this happen particularly on mobile devices, which of course today account for more internet traffic than desktop devices.

How has the introduction of new privacy legislation affected current techniques of garnering and measuring attention?

We’ve seen a wave of consumer and policymaker advocacy for better online privacy since the introduction of GDPR in 2018, and this doesn’t look likely to slow down. Other countries have followed the EU, with the US introducing the CCPA and Thailand bringing in the PDPA, and more will soon follow. Policymakers are taking these laws seriously. Companies who have fallen foul of privacy legislation have seen ramifications for doing so – in the last 18 months, Amazon and WhatsApp were fined €746m (~£651.9m) and €225m (~£196.6m) respectively for breaching GDPR. 

In my view, this necessitates an industry-wide privacy-first approach. Fortunately, I think neither contextual advertising and attention-based measurements gather or rely on any personal data whatsoever. Contextual is completely cookieless, which ultimately makes it far more suitable for the forthcoming “cookieggedon”. By leaning on contextual and attention-based approaches, advertisers will not only be better equipped to cut through the clutter, but also to comply with ever more stringent privacy policy.

How are advertisers adapting so that they can leverage attention in a privacy-first world?

With the deprecation of third-party cookies looming in 2024, advertisers are shifting the focus away from impressions, clicks, and other quantitative measures, and attention is coming to the fore as the key metric to consider. In the digital world, distractions are everywhere, so attention can very much become the new currency for measuring connection with an audience. Context is king in this arena – content owners and publishers can match the content with the situation of the viewer, creating a really compelling offering for consumers. And here at SmartFrame, we have quite a unique approach – in our latest TraderTalk TV session with Ciarán, we talked very much about this virtuous circle. Unlike a lot of ad tech vendors, we work with the advertiser, the publisher, and the content owner, so we fully understand the content of any image online without any ambiguity, which makes it a lot more effective from a targeting point of view. 

I think 2023 is all about planning how to use contextual advertising as a superpower to help advertisers tap into that coveted consumer attention span. When your content marries up to the context of where and how people are consuming media, as well as their state of mind or mood, the connection that audiences experience is naturally stronger. And we think this is critical to building a longer term strategy that focuses on developing valuable brand relationships.

How will the emergence of new technologies (such as enhanced AI) impact the way advertisers measure attention?

The emergence of new technologies like enhanced AI is likely to have a big impact on the way advertisers measure attention. AI has already been used in various aspects, from programmatic advertising to chatbots and virtual assistants, but some of the ways that AI may impact the measurement of attention include things like improved targeting, real time optimisation, improved attribution, voice enabled advertising, and enhanced personalisation. Focusing on the last of those, AI can be used to create personalised experiences for consumers, such as personalised product recommendations and messaging, which will increase engagement and attention by delivering content that is tailored to an individual's interests and needs. 

Overall, I think that new technologies will offer advertisers new ways to measure attention and engage with their audiences. However, advertisers will need to stay up to date with these technological advances and adapt their strategies accordingly in order to remain competitive in the attention economy. We’ve already seen how disruptive AI has been, with some companies like Chegg facing existential crises due to the rise of platforms like ChatGPT. We’ve also become more aware of the potential dangers of these tools, which can plagiarise (unintentionally or otherwise) existing works and generate misinformation. With this in mind, I think the growth of AI needs to be tempered, or at least met with greater scrutiny, because it certainly isn’t perfect; it still needs human verification to make sure that the data it generates is accurate.

ATS London 2023 will take place at Central Hall Westminster on 13th and 14th June. For tickets and further information, visit our dedicated events page.