News publishers can thrive in the attention economy

By Paula Felps


Nashville, Tennessee, United States


In recent years, attention has emerged as an important metric for measuring media sales. But, as INMA members learned during this week’s Webinar, it’s a metric that must be approached carefully. And publishers, agencies, and advertisers must find a way to agree on what “attention” means, how it can be measured, and what that means to the industry.

As founder of the U.K. agency Six Sells, Mike Nicholson specialises in helping clients reach their target audiences. During Measuring attention in ad campaigns for better results, Nicholson offered an overview of the strengths, threats, and opportunities related to using attention as a measurement.

Measuring attention isn’t a new idea; it’s just that how we measure it has changed. The 19th century saw the introduction of the AIDA model, which stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action.

Mike Nicholson, founder of the U.K.-based Six Sells agency, looked at how publishers can approach attention to improve advertising sales.
Mike Nicholson, founder of the U.K.-based Six Sells agency, looked at how publishers can approach attention to improve advertising sales.

“Attention’s always been the first thing that’s needed before you can communicate anything,” he said, tracking the rise of the modern attention metric back to 2013. That’s when Lumen Research, a London-based agency, introduced its eye-tracking technology, which uses front-facing cameras on computers and mobile devices to measure what consumers are looking at and how long it holds their attention.

Since then, technology has continued evolving, and more companies are interested in measuring attention — even though there isn’t a clearly established definition of what “attention” means. Phrases such as “time in view” and “viewability” are often used interchangeably with “attention,” but he argued that is not correct, as they don’t necessarily reflect the amount of time a user engaged with the ad on the screen.

“The way I describe attention is when a real human looked at an ad that was viewable for a period of time on a site,” he said. He did a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis to look at attention from the perspective of a news publisher.

“Everyone has their own point of view in this, but there’s very little being pushed out into the conversation from the publisher side,” Nicholson noted before sharing his findings.

Examining strengths and weaknesses

In terms of strengths, Nicholson had good news for publishers.

“News brands tend to perform strongly as it relates to the active attention metric versus other open Web platforms,” he said. “And I think that attention gives us that opportunity to show real value to our clients from the start of the campaign to the end.”

The “fewer is better” approach to advertisers is good for publishers because the ads receive more attention, Nicholson said. But there’s another plus to consider: “If there’s a lot of heavy ad calls, lots of header bidding, and all sorts of requests going on in the background, that produces carbon emissions. And so the fewer, the better strategy that a lot are adopting in online media is going to be good for the environment as well.”

Publishers have many advantages when it comes to delivering on the attention metric.
Publishers have many advantages when it comes to delivering on the attention metric.

To thrive in the attention economy, he said publishers must also make sure the creative content is high quality — something that they had little control over in the past. “But if the creative is bad and somebody doesn’t look at it, it’s us as publishers that will be judged as being poor performing.”

That’s a definite weakness for publishers, but Nicholson said they can start speaking up about attention from a publisher’s standpoint and have a voice in shaping the narrative around attention. Doing so will lead to new opportunities for news media companies.

“I think that because news brands do tend to perform well as it relates to attention, there’s the opportunity to win advertising budgets from sites that are perhaps made for advertisers, low-quality sites, bait sites, or sites where they could get away with it when it was just a case of proving that the ad was viewable,” he said.

Armed with new measurements that show the value of attention and engagement, publishers have the chance to reclaim some of the money that might have gone to other channels: “I think that there’s a real way that news sites can work, both together and individually, to prove that advertising on new sites leads from attention to an outcome.”

If news publishers start working together to control the narrative around attention as it relates to news brands, Nicholson said, it will “perhaps shape it into something that’s optimal for publishers as well as our tech companies.”

Then, as the news industry becomes part of the conversation and produces research showing that there are real outcomes connected to advertising on their sites, they will start seeing a higher amount of advertising dollars being invested in digital.

Publishers must be aware of some of the threats they're facing to be able to manage them.
Publishers must be aware of some of the threats they're facing to be able to manage them.

Avoiding the threats

If news brands start working together as a collective, they may be able to attract more advertisers, but that brings with it a new threat: If you’re in a group of news Web sites that are working together, one brand will inevitably earn the lowest attention score.

“They can’t all be identical,” Nicholson said. “So that’s a potential threat if you happen to be in a cluster of sites that are bought or selected at the same time and you are the lowest of those attention scores.”

Nicholson also expressed concern that media buyers would use attention scores to drive down CPMs, although he said that if publishers stand strong, this could be the opportunity to drive them up.

One other danger for publishers to consider is that the data being used to monitor and measure attention might be interpreted incorrectly, which will directly impact revenue.

Where to start

News publishers must embrace practices like eye tracking to make it work for them, and Nicholson suggested the best way to start is to work with a company that can run an audit on how users are looking at their site. That will help inform what’s working and where the placement should be tweaked.

“There are lots of different things that you can test and change and see how it affects how people actually use your site,” he said. “And then with all of those metrics, you can then start to think, okay, well we now know how people like to read our site.”

That will provide an understanding of the optimum size and placement for an ad and allow for designing uncluttered pages that encourage attention. As attention becomes better understood as a metric, Nicholson predicts the ad quality will improve and new best practices for ads will emerge.

“I think attention can help us with that if we’re able to build best practices based on our learnings,” he said. “It could be around the context, the timing, the duration, the asset sizing within the ad, the sounds, the colours, the story, the emotion.

“We should start to see better advertising, which will lead to better attention scores, which will lead to higher revenues.”

About Paula Felps

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