Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Attention versus Engagement: Why They Are Not The Same

I just read an interesting summary paper - How Do We Predict Attention and Engagement? - from the University of Bath School of Management.

The summary, written by Dr. Robert Heath, concludes that Attention and Engagement are two very different constructs.

According to Dr. Heath, The Level of Attention is the amount of conscious 'thinking' going on when an advertisement is being processed; while the Level of Engagement is the amount of subconscious 'feeling' going on when an advertisement is being processed.

Engagement works entirely in the subconscious. Attention works entirely in the conscious.

Engagement is an emotional construct. Attention is a rational construct.

Which brings me back to previous discussions on the fallacy of networks being able to offer engagement. If engagement is an emotional construct, then engagement is the privy of the ad agencies, not the networks.

Now that there is research that backs up what good agencies have always known, why are the agencies not standing up and claiming accountability for delivering engagement? Why are they allowing their only reason for being to evaporate?

To determine what a commercial should say is fairly straightforward. One does not need an ad agency to figure that out.

An ad agency's sole reason for being is to add the emotional element to a piece of communication - the 'how' of how the ad communicates.

It's the 'how' of how a message is communicated that's always separated the good agencies from the rest of the herd. And it's the 'how' that leads to sales.

At least, according to Dr. Heath.

In his summary, Dr. Heath indicates that purchase decisions are made subconsciously. In fact, the emotive power of a message shows a significant linear relationship with a shift in intent to purchase, while a message's cognitive power shows no relationship at all.

What Dr Heath is saying is that engagement, not attention, leads to sales. He goes on to mention that for this to happen, "the engagement needs to relate to a brand idea and not just the execution itself".

So much for branded entertainment.

Which raises a question - can engagement be measured? After all, if agencies are going to want to be held accountable for engagement, then we need some way of knowing that engagement actually started.

In the interruptive model of advertising that has been prevalent up until now, that's impossible.

But as intrusive advertising platforms evolve into digital, opt-in advertising platforms, this changes. When viewers opt-in, it is possible to measure the intent of the viewer, the start point, if you will, of engagement.

Opting-in is a form of physical engagement on the part of the viewer. It's driven, by a rational desire to see or know more about something. How long they stay engaged/involved is more complicated.

Yes, time spent with a commercial can be measured when viewers opt-in , and time spent is being measured on digital platform today. But is time spent with a message due more to engagement - the subconscious at work - or attention - the conscious at work?

That answer is still to be determined.

But my guess is that the answer will lie in the context in which the content is received and/or processed. Commercials watched online are processed in a very different way than commercials watched on TV. It's not unlike how newspaper and TV ads are processed very differently. The former conforms to a systematic goal-driven, top-down processing model, while TV conforms to an automatic, stimulus driven, bottom-up processing model

Reading a newspaper is cognitive. Watching TV is emotive. Or, can be. TV uses sight, sound and motion - it appeals to more senses. Yes, online does as well - it is still screen media. But the user is more goal-driven when online, and less so when in front of a TV.

What are the implications?

Agencies will need to create different types of creative for online vs offline viewing. It may well all be sight, sound and motion media, but a 50" living room experience is vastly different than a 15" desktop experience.

While both experiences will be needed to build a brand, the creative objectives should be quite different.

I want to thank Dr. Heath, and The University of Bath School of Management, for their insights.

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