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May I have your attention, please?

May I have your attention, please?
Denise Turner, Insight Director at Newsworks, explores the importance of attention in a world saturated with almost infinite content.

There is a double whammy facing brands trying to reach consumers today. More and more media content is being created but the amount of time people to consume it has not changed, so multi-tasking and multi-screening are increasingly seen as the norm. 

We are faced with almost infinite content but our attention is most definitely finite. According to a study by Microsoft Canada, the average human attention span decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2013, making it shorter than that of a goldfish, which are believed to have an attention span of nine seconds.

Newsworks' new research project, The battle for attention, conducted by PwC, explores the importance of attention in a world saturated with almost infinite content, and its implications for advertisers.

What is attention?

According to academics, there are two main types of attention. On the one hand we have sustained and selective attention – prolonged focus or maintaining attention regardless of distracting stimuli around.

On the other, we have divided attention – completing two or more tasks simultaneously.

It is a widely accepted notion in the communications world that divided attention is the norm and sustained attention is on the wane. However, divided attention is actually better described as alternating attention – if you think you are doing two things at once, you are in reality switching between the two, even if those switches are infinitesimally small.

Does attention matter?

From an advertising point of view, does attention matter?   Do we need to catch and hold people’s attention?  Surely, it is just about forming brand associations subconsciously?  After all, Dr Robert Heath’s model of low involvement processing of advertising suggests you don’t need to pay attention at all for advertising to have an impact.

On the other hand, we frequently hear that the successful brands are ones that develop deeper relationships with consumers, which invite them into a dialogue, offering them additional content and experiences. In an attention-starved world, this model is about earning attention.  The problem is that engagement has become more associated with short-term metrics - clicks, views, viewability, dwell time and eyes on content. 

These two different models are complementary, not in conflict. As Robert Heath himself stated, there is a need for both low involvement processing of, and highly engaged receptivity to, advertising.  Some channels will be better at delivering the former and some the latter.

With this in mind, Newsworks partnered with PwC to find out more about attention and engagement. We wanted to define attention, examine what drives it and determine the role attention plays across different types of media and platforms in driving consumer engagement with advertising. A nationally representative adult survey across Great Britain generated data for 2,643 people across 15 media types, generating 7,770 responses, which were aligned with industry metrics: IPA TouchPoints, comScore and Chartbeat.

The findings reveal new learnings about attention and the central role it plays in the consumer journey. 

Personal choice drives attention

We explored the impact of different attitudes on driving attention.  These covered the time people devote to a medium, the rewards they get from it, the trust they have with the content and brands, as well as the social currency related to the content.  We found a clear relationship between personal choice and attention.  All four correlate strongly with attention. Unsurprisingly, published media - and national print newspapers in particular - score highly on all four of these measures. 

From time spent to quality time: the attention equation

Some in our industry have come to believe that time spent with a media type is a fair measure of where the advertising money should be placed. Others, such as Sir Martin Sorrell, argue that the quality of time spent needs to be factored in. Through the research, we were able to prove that the amount of time spent does not correlate with any advertising impact at all. 

We looked at defining quality time, where people give their attention to the content they are consuming, and whether it is for a long or short time. Given that we know it’s not enough just to reach people, you need to catch their attention, we wanted to create an attention equation – in order to apply an attention factor to the reach that a campaign delivers.  

First, looking at sustained and selective attention, we analysed solus media usage, where there is no other media being consumed. This is defined as people’s usual behaviour for that medium for regular consumers.  Second, we looked at divided or alternating attention, where regular consumers are usually using multiple media and looked at their level of focus. We asked people whether their focus was on the first or second medium and whether they gave high, medium or low focus on the first medium.

Our attention equation is made up of these two components:  

Solus media usage + (multimedia usage x high focus)

Each media type has a percentage out of 100, made up of two components: the proportion of regular consumers for whom this is usually a solus medium + those who are multi-tasking but usually make this medium their priority.

Contrary to popular belief, a lot of people do still consume one media type at a time, we’re not all multi-screening.  The channels that perform well on this metric tend to those people have personally chosen to consume (commercial TV on demand and national print newspapers) or those channels where it is physically hard to consume another media type simultaneously (e.g. listening to the radio while driving).


Fig 1: ‘The battle for attention’, Newsworks/PwC, April 2016

Adding in the second part of the equation, the channels that rise to the top are the ones that naturally command attention.


Fig 2: ‘The battle for attention’, Newsworks/PwC, April 2016

Print newspapers top  the table with a media attention score of 80% among their regular consumers, followed by regional print newspapers at 76%, short online videos at 75% and national newspaper websites and commercial TV on demand at 73%.

The relationship between attention and ad response

‘The battle for attention’ found that regular consumers who are fully immersed in a media, are more likely to respond positively to advertising - defined as getting ideas about brands and products, encouragement to purchase, relevance and trust in advertising - than those who are using multiple media simultaneously.


Fig 3: ‘The battle for attention’, Newsworks/PwC, April 2016

We believe that attention has an important role to play in advertising. After all, the word ‘advertising’ is derived from the Latin ‘advertere’, which means to draw attention to something (literally ‘to turn towards’).  We are in the business of attracting people’s attention, telling them about brands and products, so that ultimately they choose to buy and use them, and our communications are effective. 

While low involvement processing helps to build brands, attention helps to kick-start consumer action. There are numerous different cases that demonstrate this in the IPA Effectiveness Awards.  One great example is John Lewis, which in recent years has created some emotional TV advertising alongside some highly attention grabbing print work, with detailed product stories that galvanised consumers into action. 

At Newsworks’ Shift conference earlier this year, we heard from Waitrose (see below), on the different roles of the channels it uses, stating that print is their most effective channel in driving sales.

And finally, just to reassure you that we are indeed capable of active attention – University of Aberdeen attention researcher Søren K. Andersen says that it’s vital to distinguish between what people choose to do when there’s no reason for them to focus and what they’re capable of doing when focusing is the point.

People might find it pleasant to flick from one activity to another when that’s an option, but are still perfectly capable of putting their minds to concentrating when the situation requires it.

Denise Turner is Insight Director at Newsworks, a sponsor of the IPA Effectiveness Awards 2016

Last updated 18/05/2016

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