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Ten Insights About Attention That Every Advertiser Must Understand

Published on: 
January 25, 2024
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Attention is on everyone's radar. Or should be. To explain why, I have summarized ten lessons learned from the Human Attention Study that I conducted in a research project with the Stockholm School of Economics together with Tobii and Odyssey.

Insight 1: What is passive eye-tracking panel?

Let's start with what is actually new and why attention has been drawn to it. It is so called passive eye-tracking. The type of study that many are familiar with has an active panel, which means that a panel is recruited to conduct a specific eye-tracking study. This uses everything from classic eye-tracking where glasses are used to analyze what an active panelist is looking at, to eye-trackers that are stand-alone or use the camera in a computer or mobile phone. The method often uses small panels focusing on individual ads and channels.

Passive panel means only so-called passive eye-tracking that uses the camera on desktop or mobile together with a downloaded software that tracks and analyzes the natural online behavior. The solution requires no tag integrations, which means that even walled gardens are measured, and that there is access to historical data. Eye tracking is done via Tobii's Eye Tracker 5 or via eye tracking algorithms on the webcam.

Read more about the ATTEX method here:

What does this imply?

We get more realistic measures of how many ads are actually viewed and how long they are viewed. This provides new and in many cases unique insights into the conditions under which ads actually work.

Metrics to understand eye-tracking data

Attention is about four measures and the correlation between them. Firstly, of course, impressions. Then we have viewability, which is indicated by how many impressions were actually shown. There is a standard here, but not all media follow it. Then we have the first eye-tracking metric, which is fixation. This is usually also stated as a percentage of the number of impressions that a person looks at. This is measured by passive panel and indicates average fixation. The fourth metric is gaze time and indicates the length of the average gaze time.

Diagram of advertising metrics from 'Impression' to 'Gaze Time' with eye-tracking data.

Insight 2: An impression is not an impression

It is very important to realize that an impression is not an impression. As illustrated below, I can show data for three different purchases on desktop. The same number of impressions but the number of impressions seen is very different and the total time is about 10 times higher for purchase 1 than for purchase 3. This means that one impression can create 10 times as much effect as another.

Infographic showing a sequence from 'Impression' to 'Gaze Time' with statistical data on viewer engagement for three purchases.

If we look at the data that the Swedish Advertisers published in 2023 based on Tobii's and Odyssey's compilation, we see that there is a difference between different channels. We also see how short times it is we are talking about.

Table displaying attention and average fixation time statistics across various online channels for Q1 2023, including display, video, and social media.

Insight 3: The medium guides initial attention

Advertising should attract attention. That's not really true anymore. When the majority of views are short, it is the exposure in the form of channel, platform and placement that determines the initial attention an ad gets. The medium controls the time more than the ad if we are talking about exposure times below 4-5 seconds. When the majority of exposures in digital are shorter than that, advertisers must to a greater extent adapt to the conditions provided by the medium.

Advertisers need to understand the conditions of the medium instead of focusing solely on the creative. This is nothing new but becomes even more important with the insights from attention data.

Insight 4: Different exposure times can create different effects

There seem to be some critical time spans for advertising exposure that allow for different types of effects. First, these are times below 2-2.5 seconds. In this time, it is difficult to communicate longer advertising messages or create new fact-based memories. The main task here is to remind and evoke emotions.

Between 2-2.5 and 4-5 seconds, it is possible to communicate information that builds new fact-based memories to a greater extent. After about 4-5 seconds, creativity really starts to be able to arouse interest and prolong processing.

Flowchart depicting the stages of digital advertising effectiveness from stimuli exposure to processing and awareness, labeled with key terms like fixation and gaze time.
Illustrative image of the effects that can be achieved with advertising. Source: Human Attention Study (2023)

Insight 5: Match your challenges with exposure times

Different advertising tasks require different lengths of exposure time. Therefore, it is important to know how long exposure is required to succeed with different tasks. Below is an example of how long different tasks might take. These times are of course unique to each brand, so take this as a tip to think about what you can do with different exposure times.

Timeline visual illustrating the recommended exposure times for different marketing messages from reminding about a purchase to introducing a brand.

Insight 6: Desktop and mobile have similar challenges but to different extents

Both desktop and mobile have challenges with attention. However, the challenges look a bit different.

For desktop, fixation is a major challenge. The reason is that there are many impressions that are loaded but not displayed on the screen, or where many impressions are displayed at the same time so that fixation is low. There are very large differences in the degree of fixation between different impressions.

For mobile, the fixation rate is less of a challenge because the screen is small so everything that is viewable is also fixed to a large extent. The challenge with mobile is mainly title time, which tends to be low given the fast scrolling time.

For desktop, media buying becomes crucial, for mobile it is more important to adapt the ad to the small screen and short exposure time.

Insight 7: Display recognizable brand elements

With short exposure times, people can still perceive the ad and be reminded of what they already know.

It is therefore crucial to include clear brand elements such as a logo, own colors, patterns or other familiar elements from the start. Always from the start!

If you succeed in creating a clear connection between the brand and certain unique elements, the ad can have an effect on low measured fixation. It is this effect that shows that ads can be effective even if fixation is not measured because these recognizable elements can be processed peripherally.

  • Size matters and should not be underestimated. Especially in mobile advertising, the logo must be large enough to be visible at very high scroll speeds.
  • The clearer the brand design of the ad, the smaller the logo can be.
  • The more famous a brand is, the smaller the logo can be.
  • Other elements (such as a celebrity) compete for attention, so the more attention-grabbing other elements are, the more prominent the brand element needs to be.

Insight 8: Less is more

Ads that contain several different items do not get more attention. Rather, there is a risk that important elements will not be focused on. It is therefore important to limit the number of items in an advertisement.

With short exposure times, people read very few words. Therefore, it is usually better to write almost in supporting words in the ad. Perhaps even use only a few words.

Graphic on marketing tactics indicating optimal placement for logo, product, and message for advertising.

Insight 9: Awakening emotions and creating familiarity

Evoking emotions is a rule of ad effectiveness that applies to all advertising. So also digital advertising. However, it is important to realize that with the short exposure available in digital, it is important to evoke emotions instinctively.

  • Show people experiencing the emotion because people quickly understand the emotion people are feeling.
  • Humor seems to have an ability to work even in short digital formats if it is direct humor that works image-wise or with short video.
  • Use clear conditioning such as products that are already loaded with positive emotions such as baking pizza or other food.

Insight 10: Framing

Each message is interpreted based on the surrounding information perceived by the receiver. This is called framing and becomes very important when it comes to short exposure times. The reason is that the recipients must quickly decode a message and then they make greater use of the surrounding information - the frame - to draw conclusions. It is therefore of great importance not to neglect the framing but to really think through what surrounds the message.

At longer exposure times it is not as important because then the message can get through regardless and customers will then be able to interpret and remember the message based on what it says. In the short term, this is not possible and the environment becomes more important.

For example, it becomes important to put the environment in the ad to strengthen the message. Both when it comes to making it easy to understand the message and also to recognize the brand. If it is sloppy and several different types of environments are used that are not directly linked to the product or sender, the effect risks being reduced.

Interested in learning more about digital attention?

Take a look at our path Mastering Digital Attention, which we have made specially for giving you everything you need to get the hang of attention in advertising.