Pay Attention! 3 Steps To Digital Advertising Breakthrough

With a proliferation of content and the rise of multimedia tasking, it's harder than ever for ads to break through to viewers. Columnist Peter Minnium offers three steps to help tackle the challenge.

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“Look at me, Judy,” I blurted out with exasperation at my 13-year-old daughter, trying to get her undivided attention.

It was nearing 10 p.m. on a school night, and I was beginning to panic. That day, Judy had uncharacteristically asked me for help with her homework rather than her mother, who thankfully plays the tutor role, as I am usually at work or traveling during the appointed hours.

I said yes, of course, partially out of parental duty, but also with the notion that it would take 20 minutes at most to guide her through a difficult patch.

Two hours later, I realized that the rules of engagement had changed since I was a child, and even since my 21-year-old son was in the eighth grade!

Judy "doing homework"

Judy “doing homework”

In addition to her homework assignment, I was vying for her attention, along with three other content streams: Snapchat (via tablet), Pandora (via phone) and the good old web to look things up (via a laptop).

Ironically, this took place while I was writing my last article, “The Definitive Guide to Digital Brand Lift.” In that, I lay out the process by which communications work to change the attitudes and behavior of viewers and the appropriate measures of each along the way.

While I dutifully completed that piece, giving equal weight to building awareness, interest and desire on the way to action, I was struck with the overwhelming sense — made real by my adorably distracted daughter — that breaking through (i.e., gaining awareness) is no longer one in a series of equally important objectives. It is an absolute yes-or-no gatekeeper to having any effect at all.

The rules of digital breakthrough are considerably more complex than those for analog media, driven by media fragmentation, device proliferation, the rise of multimedia tasking, ad-format propagation, growing expertise in ad-avoidance and the addition of “viewers” themselves as creators of media and content.


In the old days, I would have written, “Today, it is estimated that consumers are bombarded with X commercial messages daily” as a way to illustrate the cluttered reality. Today, this is a quaint notion, as the scale and scope of those messages competing for attention have added exponentially to the difficulty. It is a challenge in an entirely new dimension.

Ten years ago, the competitors for my attention when watching television were just the commercial, the urge to go to the kitchen or my wife asking me a question. Quaint indeed!

The breakthrough challenge is one that will be debated by the digital industry for years to come. As a contribution to this effort, herewith is a three-step framework for addressing it.

1. Create An Opportunity To See Your Advertising

This is the lowest of the bars that advertising needs to get over in order to break through, and developments over the past few years have made it a hot topic in digital advertising.

In traditional media, opportunity to see (OTS) is the subject of little debate. It is simply a fundamental of advertising, a basic measure of media exposure.

If a magazine or newspaper was delivered to my home or a TV program played in my living room, the ratings experts determined that I had the opportunity to see the media and advertising therein.

For the first nearly 20 years of digital advertising, however, there was no accepted definition of opportunity to see. Hard to believe, I know, but ads were sold on a delivered impression basis, and, given the way web pages load, they might never make it into the viewable browser area.

The industry solved this challenge over the past few years, publishing viewable impression measurement guidelines for desktop display and video, and is hard at work developing a definition for mobile advertising. It is critical to understand exactly how your advertising campaign’s OTS is measured.

Viewable impression graphic_800 wide

Despite this advancement, considerable debate on the topic remains, as many people feel that the definition of 50 percent of pixels in view for one continuous second (display) or two seconds (video) is too lax. This point of view reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the OTS principle, which is based on the minimum time for cognition to begin.

As Sherrill Mane, SVP of research, analytics and measurement at the IAB, explained to Adexchanger:

[blockquote]Viewability does not guarantee that an ad will be looked at or that an ad will be appealing or have an impact or generate awareness or change brand perception. Viewability has nothing to do with how well an ad works.[/blockquote]

2. Get The Viewer’s Attention

visioneye_attention focused_800 side

Attention is often thought of as a binary principle: Either you have it or you don’t. When researching this article, I learned that the truth is much more complex; neurologists commonly differentiate between five types of attention, with the duties split between the left and right brain.

The right brain, it turns out, is capable of sustained attention and vigilance and processing vast quantities of environmental stimuli. It is an always-on, low-level lens to the brain, and it does much of its work visually; studies have shown that it can hold thousands upon thousands of images at a time.

Getting the attention of the right brain, however, is just the first step, as it acts as a type of filter, alerting the left brain to things requiring focused attention.

It is likely safe to say that the vast majority of viewable digital ads get the attention of the right brain. It is equally safe to say that very, very few get the focused attention of the left — and this is what is required to have any chance of making an impact.

3. Make A Memory

After creating an opportunity to see and making it out of the right brain’s sustained attention to the left brain’s focused attention, an ad still needs to stimulate cognitive processing sufficient to establish a memory.


This is no easy feat, requiring making it through three stages. The ad is first recorded in a sensory register, which temporarily holds the information until it can be matched to meaningful concepts in the brain.

Successful matching by the sensory register results in further processing in stage two, short-term memory, where raw sensory information becomes meaningful code and, with success, is transferred to long-term memory, the viewer’s repository of learning.

Governing access to this process is an impressive filtering system, often referred to in academic psychology as working memory. It’s a filter constantly sorting relevant and useful experiences across everything seen, heard and experienced, allowing the important pieces to pass.

If and only if an ad makes it through this gauntlet to make a memory does it stand a chance of success — of being linked to the brand, conveying a message, changing attitudes and driving favorability, persuasion and action.

The Digital Breakthrough Dilemma

The challenge of digital breakthrough is growing exponentially. On the one hand, there is an avalanche of more: more content, more media fragmentation, more devices, more multimedia tasking, more ads and more ad formats.

On the other, the human brain has not increased its capacity for attention, and cognitive filters everywhere are working in overdrive to screen the relevant from the irrelevant. The result is clear: Fewer ads break through.

What does it take to make it through? Watch this space for best practices, coming soon.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Peter Minnium
Peter Minnium is president of Ipsos US, where he leads the US team in helping companies measure and amplify how media, brands, and consumers connect through compelling content and great communications. Prior to his switch to market research, Peter was Head of Brand Initiatives at the IAB focused on addressing the under-representation of creative brand advertising online.

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