Advertising and the Attention economy - Why the Attention economy is booming and why it matters

Attention metrics are becoming an integral part of analytics and measurement, and not just for digital channels.


Written by Patrick Malone

Panel - Children distracted looking through window

Attention has been on most advertisers minds for a couple of years now, and there has been quite a lot written on the subject in recent months with research pieces from the likes of JICMAIL, Lumen, Ebquity, WARC and PwC to name but a few. In a highly fragmented media environment with an ever more distracted audience, Attention should be on every advertiser’s mind and with good reason. But first we must ask; what is Attention, how is it measured, is it even properly understood and is there a consensus on why it matters? As the adage goes, “not all reach is equal”, and is that because we’re just not paying Attention anymore?

Defining Attention

When we talk about Attention in the context of advertising, we are talking about the fact that people have a choice between options which they can be selective about. For example, very simply it can be the choice between watching the TV that is on in front of you, your phone in your hand or the magazine by your side, all three are trying (in an inanimate sort of way) to engage you and grab your Attention. However, your Attention is finite, and you only have so much to give, therefore you must give your Attention to one thing at a time. This one thing you are paying Attention to is what is being measured, and what is important and what every advertiser is after. To put it another way, an ad impression does not mean viewability.

How do we define Attention measurement in advertising, is there a consensus in the industry?

To understand what Attention is and its importance we first need to look at the wider advertising industry and examine what is being said. To paraphrase the English Philosopher Jon Locke, the best way to understand something is to learn a little bit at a time, so I’ve broken down a few of the different approaches and opinions.

Due to media fragmentation audiences are ever more distracted, the amount of choice given to consumers simply makes paying Attention to it all impossible. As Ebiquity’s The Challenge of Attention attests, it is simply no longer possible to reach a mass audience just by running a TV campaign, and characterises marketing as an “Attention Economy”, a competition for everyone’s eyeballs! The Ebiquity study used eye tracking data and believe due to the ease of measurement, and the importance of vision that this method proves to be highly effective. From the eye tracking study it’s clear that not all media channels command Attention in the same way, for example from their findings a single 30 second TV ad will generate the same amount of Attention as one and a half YouTube ads, or four and a half Facebook in-feed ads. These findings perfectly illustrate that an impression does not guarantee Attention, that media and Attention are fragmented and why being able to measure Attention is crucial.

In WARC’s The True Cost of Advertising Attention the author, Mike Follett, explores a way in which to standardise the way in which we measure Attention. Standardisation is crucial to measurement, to ensure fairness, for everything to make sense and to make sure we aren’t comparing apples with digital banner ads. Follet states that by combining data from TVision and Lumen it is possible to create a true cost of Attention across media channels by calculating an ‘attentive CPM’ (aCPM), the cost of generating a thousand seconds of Attention. TVision data suggests that a lot of TV ads are not watched or paid Attention to meaning that “only 43%” of broadcast TV ads are actually properly viewed i.e., someone giving full Attention and watching the whole creative. But when TV ads do get viewed, oh boy do they generate a large amount of Attention, and according to the WARC study over 6,000 seconds get generated per 1,000 30 second ads. By using a one size fits all approach to measurement we can finally start to attribute Attention fairly by channel.

The consensus seems to be that media is fragmented and Attention scattered, not all channels produce the same amount of Attention and that there needs to be standardisation. There is no one gold standard yet in the industry but that measurement needs to come, in my opinion, in the form of attentive Cost per Thousand (CPM), or aCPM for short. Only then can we attribute fair and equal Attention metrics to each channel.

Why does Attention matter?

The Attention Council’s (TAC) From Attention to Action refers to Attention as inevitably becoming the way in which we buy our media, this means that Attention will soon be able to be traded as a commodity and will need to be measured and priced accordingly. If this is the way the industry is heading, and the consensus is that it is, then Attention and its measurement will have far reaching effects. The TAC has stated that “the industry needs to come together to reshape the ecosystem in a way that reflects these two essential truths. The incentives are as obvious as they are powerful: Consumers will enjoy great content, and advertising will be more effective. As a result, content creators will earn the right to higher CPMs.” Which I think more than makes Attention worth at least keeping an eye on as the change is coming sooner rather than later.

What does this mean for mail?

We already know from JICMAIL research that mail spends a lot of time in the home and drives many commercial and physical actions. For instance, we know that Addressed Mail drive 14% of receivers to discuss an item with someone else. This leads to the conclusion that mail is an important attention driver, one that people are focused on and are viewing with undivided attention and whilst not being distracted by their phone etc. Mail stays in the home for up to days or sometimes weeks at a time and is often revisited and reviewed by members of the household, which means the amount of attention accrued is likely to be significant.

There is a major opportunity to establish mail as a significant medium for attention which stacks up or is better than many other media channels. have been talking about this issue for some time now, and call Attention the media measurement, and spent the summer of 2022 running their recent pilot study with the full results released earlier in 2023. Their vetted (by PwC) results so far show mail is “proving to be a highly attention efficient channel when compared to other media”, which should become a key point when media and marketing managers are making decisions.

The recent results that we’ve seen from JICMAIL show that the average Direct Mail item generates 108 seconds of attention across 28 days, which shows that the channel is hyper efficient. Mail attention is also strongly linked to commercial effectiveness. The 2023 JICMAIL report ‘The Time We Spend with Mail’ shows that there is a x2 to x3 multiplier for time spent with commercially effective Direct Mail items and a x3 to x5 multiplier for Door Drops. This effectiveness multiplier shows just how commercially effective mail items are at driving a range of effects including purchases, footfall, discussions, and voucher redemptions.

I think that Malcolm Auld (JICMAIL) puts it best when he states “when you apply a value to attention, it becomes even more interesting [compared to other channels]. While direct mail usually costs more to create, it almost always has far higher response rates than any online advertising.” This then translates to better CPL and CPS rates for clients, and therefore better value.

In conclusion there are many ways in which we can define Attention, and each media channel is different in its approach. There is still some way to go for Attention to considered on par with CPM or advertising Reach, but there have been some seismic shifts in recent years towards that goal. In doing so we should see greater transparency for brands and media agencies, which in the end can only be a positive thing and may help utilise budgets more efficiently. We know the likes of the TAC envision Attention being the all-important metric, whether or not this will happen is not a certainty, but what is certain is that Mail must continue to be part of the conversation and have our own metrics and be able to speak the same language of Attention that others in the media industry are doing right now.


References and further reading

Keep up to date

Join the thousands of subscribers experiencing the magic of mail. Get creative inspiration, latest innovations, thought leadership and free resources delivered to your inbox monthly.

You must provide your first name
You must provide your last name

Royal Mail Group would like to keep in touch with you by email about our products, services and offers that might interest you. Please indicate your consent by subscribing below.

You can withdraw your consent at any time. For more details about this and how we handle your data, please read our Privacy Policy Privacy Policy.