A longer version of this piece originally appeared in WARC. 

Attention is the new black. Or perhaps more accurately, the new viewability.  

While attention is currently firmly in the ‘many different definitions and methodologies’ stage, what lessons can past standardisations teach us for its future? 

More than 50% of the creative must be in view for one second: that is the current MRC definition and de facto standard for viewability, dating back to 2014. This was the year Facebook bought into VR with Oculus, and Google announced Ara, a new modular mobile phone. Much has changed in the interim, but has measuring campaign effectiveness kept pace? 

Unseeing 81% of Viewable Impressions 

There is a widely circulated figure doing the rounds now, that as many as 81% of MRC accredited viewable ads are not actually seen by a human. Further to this, agency partners report that high performing campaigns for attention metrics such as time in view often score badly for viewability, and vice versa.  

It should be added at this point that there is nothing inherently wrong with viewability – other than the agreed standard arguably set a low bar – at least, so it naturally would seem eight years on. In short, more is needed. 

Cookie Conundrum 

The backdrop to all of this, of course, is the shake up across advertising caused by cookie deprecation. Arguably it is that, above all, which has propelled attention into the spotlight.  

It’s worth noting that cookies were not created with advertising in mind. They simply became a campaign measurement tool, as the one method which was most readily available and convenient. 

There is a lesson here for measuring attention too – in that racing towards the end to pop this new metric into a neat little box might not result in the best solution.  

Arguably, that final ‘standard’ may not even be a single thing, but a customisable solution, depending on what the brand outcome is. In other words, a little like Google’s modular phone – a set of different parts that lock together, with a choice of different options on each.  

Challenges to Adoption 

Attention is receiving attention right now because of industry flux, but there is also a flurry of activity around it because there isn’t yet a clear, single definition of what it is. 

This is opening up of exciting new avenues and conversations which were long overdue, but never had a chance of happening before. Viewability and CTR are still important, but no longer enough on their own. The industry is now able to be more objective about their drawbacks as well as benefits, while also ready to debate the measures and add-ons needed for effective attention measurement: among them time in view, eye tracking, brand lift measurement, page quality considerations like clutter, article length, number of ads on screen etc.  

In terms of the obstacles to change, there is the obvious – like legacy bonus structures, and the simple fact that change generally creates more work. To the practical – in the brand world, planning around metrics can take place up to a year in advance. This is why any major shift is daunting – and, indeed, why the click or a 2014 definition of viewability still hold sway. 

What is needed right now therefore is a combination of innovation and experimentation from ad tech, publishers, agencies and measurement firms. While companies test and learn individually, they also need ways to test and learn collectively alongside: hence why agency solutions should be welcomed here. These should allow brands to compare like for like, and enable a level playing field when comparing partner solutions. 

Attention may well be the new black. It may even be the new viewability. To truly lift digital as both an effective branding as well as performance medium, by all means let’s standardise. But advertisers must also embrace it in all its complexity.