Mind the attention gap: What brands need to know about advertising today

By David Edelman
Mind the attention gap: What brands need to know about advertising today

Thales Teixeira, Harvard Business School professor, talks to McKinsey partner Dave Edelman about how companies need to focus on attention when thinking about advertising.

Thales Teixeira, Harvard Business School professor, talks to McKinsey partner Dave Edelman about how companies need to focus on attention when thinking about advertising.

Finding the balance between entertainment and information

For advertising to work, it has to attract attention before it does anything else, and then the consumer has to be persuaded before the interaction ends. But you need different content for grabbing attention vs. persuading people. To grab attention, you need to entertain. To persuade, you need to inform. Given limited ad time or space, you may not always be able to do both.

The situation is much more complicated nowadays, because people’s attention spans are much shorter and they are inveterate media multi-taskers. In this world, then, ads need to focus on doing one thing—there isn’t enough time to do more—doing it quickly, and then driving the persuasion at a later stage, in another channel, or in a follow-up ad. An effective TV ad today drives people to engage with the brand on a second medium, either on a mobile device or a computer. Therefore you are now seeing more ads that are trying to get consumers to take a specific action that is short of buying, such as going to a website.  These can only work, though, if there is a compelling reason to go.

The need to grab attention means that the entertainment factor is really important. Ad design and creative really matters. A good ad creates a bridge from grabbing attention to persuading on another channel. That requires advertisers to think in a 2-step multichannel model.

Getting attention during the customer decision journey

Understanding where your target customer is during his/her customer decision journey (CDJ) can help determine where you need to focus your advertising resources. If you need to raise awareness, then your advertising should focus on entertaining people to grab their attention. But if your target audience is further along the decision journey, at the evaluation stage, for example, then your advertising needs to be focusing on providing relevant information.

The traditional approach for marketers has been to focus on attention-grabbing ads and sales promotion. The ad is still important because it allows the brand to connect with the right kinds of people in the market. But marketers need to support the implicit or explicit promise of the ad by building out a marketing infrastructure that supports the customer through the subsequent phases of the decision journey. Changes in attention habits require a more surgical strategy in thinking about the role of advertising and making sure a brand is placing the most appropriate ads in the context of the whole decision journey.

Take a look at cars. The problem has traditionally been that if auto brands can’t get someone to consider them at the beginning of their journey, they won’t be able to win them later. So how do you get consumers to consider your car? The ads have to entertain. Front-loading an ad with information isn’t going to work; people won’t remember it. Ads that entertain also help build bonds between a current owner and their car’s brand.

Build engagement slowly and deliberately

There is a lot of talk at companies about quickly increasing engagement rather than thinking in terms of building that relationship incrementally. People are not willing to watch or consume a 30-second ad if they have no connection with the brand. You have to have a coffee with someone before you ask them over to dinner. The same applies for brands. For that reason, it’s important to think in terms of developing multiple short interactions to create a “ladder of engagement” with a customer.

When you get to the local level, that’s when the channel becomes particularly important. If you’re a car dealer, for example, they’re targeting a small set of people who live nearby, that are thinking about buying car, that have a specific car and brand in mind, and that have the time to buy one. Given that scale, mass media outreach isn’t a very cost effective way to reach out to them. The other issue with these kinds of ads is that they really desensitize other people who aren’t yet ready to buy. But when they are, the ads tend to leave a negative impression on them.

Start with your media strategy

Too often companies think about the ad as the product that they have to figure out how to distribute. That’s the wrong way to think about it. Attention is the scarce resource—not the ad. Advertisers need to start by understanding the attention potential of each media. In a movie theater, an ad is going to get high quality attention. So you can think about substituting some entertainment for more information. In a TV ad, the opposite may work better.

Ad agencies need to align content with quality of attention potential for their brand, their category, and the media they buy. You really should start your media buying strategy with a hard look at, one, the attention you require, and, two, the attention that you can get. These two factors jointly determine what “attention gap” your ad content needs to address.

B2B companies have feelings too

When it comes to entertaining people, there’s also this misconception that this approach is only relevant for B2C companies. But IBM and GE have done fantastic jobs developing advertising and marketing content that drive appeal to the brand. Their ads are not about business processes. They’re entertaining stories about people, with a beginning, middle, and end. They’ve made it easy and digestible for the TV medium, and have successfully extended it to the digital space as well.

The reality is that when most executives are watching TV, they’re not watching with their “business” hats on. GE’s ecomagination and IBM’s smarter planet efforts appeal to people’s emotional sensibilities, and they are largely successful at making emotional connections with the audience. I really think that B2B companies are undervaluing the power of entertainment when it comes to their advertising.

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