Why ad buyers are slow to embrace attention metrics

For the past year, a handful of premium publishers have been pushing the idea of attention-based metrics. As the pressure to goose clicks and unique visitors has led to clickbait and other abuses, the argument goes, time spent on the site is a better indicator of an ad’s performance.

But if ad agencies are receptive to the idea in theory, they’re not necessarily diving in.

“We’re not buying that way,” said Media Kitchen president Barry Lowenthal. “We’re buying clicks, impressions, audience. That’s the criteria we’re looking at when we’re evaluating performance.”

Same goes for Steve Carbone, chief digital and analytics officer for Mediacom North America, whose parent GroupM has pushed for tough viewability standards. “I haven’t bought anything on a cost per hour,” he said. “GroupM doesn’t care about time on an ad; GroupM cares about whether an ad’s 100 percent in view.”

The Financial Times has been at the forefront of the attention-metrics push. After testing the concept with some big brands last year, the FT in May introduced the ability to buy ads on a cost-per-hour basis. Upworthy and Medium have been proponents of the concept, and The Wall Street Journal, Economist and Bloomberg have also experimented with selling ads based on attention metrics.

Brendan Spain, the FT’s U.S. commercial director and global client relationship director, said the publication has run a dozen campaigns from top clients since the start of the year and that demand “remains strong.”

“The metric complements our advertising offering for campaigns where the desired outcomes are brand familiarity and recall,” he said.

But a paucity of publishers selling this way and no industry standard for time spent is reason enough for other agencies to hold back.

An attention minutes metric has limitations for other reasons. The central idea behind it is that the longer an ad is in view, the more familiarity and recall consumers have with it. But some advertising needs to get the user to click through or just be in view for a brief time.

“I’ve seen click-through rates for ads that were up for a tenth of a second,” Carbone said. “You could have a high cost per hour and low awareness. It depends on the KPI.”

Carbone emphasized that while he hasn’t bought on attention minutes, he applauds the FT for introducing the CPH metric because it advances the industry toward GroupM’s goal of 100 percent-viewable ads. “We love that they’re pushing the industry forward,” he said.

And if buyers aren’t ready to scrap the way they’ve been buying digital ads across content sites, there’s one place the idea of an engagement metric is holding strong, and that’s video advertising, where the completed ad has become an important measure of performance.

“That is an engagement metric,” Lowenthal said. “But it doesn’t have to be the indicator for all content sites.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.