Are you an attention ninja? What Microsoft’s study into digital media habits means for advertisers

Humans now have a shorter attention span than goldfish.

That was the eye-catching headline picked up from two new studies published last month by Microsoft, which explored consumer attention in the digital age across the UK and Canadian markets.

Alongside reflecting the increasing challenge for advertisers to grab – and retain – our attention, the report also highlights the importance of context. How media is consumed can be a key driver for engagement.

TheMediaBriefing spoke to Owen Sagness, general manager, advertising and online at Microsoft UK, to find out a bit more about this new research, and the implications for digital advertisers.

Advertiser driven study

“Microsoft’s Attention Spans research was developed specifically for the advertising community, to illustrate the subtle nuances that impact how target demographics respond to brand content,” Sagness says.

To do this, in the UK, the study used qualitative and quantitative research to gain insights from 2,000 UK consumers, along with five in-home digital ethnographic studies. Meanwhile in Canada, 2,000 respondents took part in an online quantitative survey, with researchers also using electroencephalograph (EEG) technology to capture the brain activity of 112 participants.

The new research, Sagness explains, enables us to understand “how digital behaviours have changed – with attention spans being just one of the many factors that marketers need to consider when creating advertising content.”

Digital Attention Skills

What the study found was that “consumers are training their brains in response to technology usage, in order to become better at processing information and getting things done,” Sagness says.

This means gravitating between three main attention types, each of which requires deploying different techniques if digital advertisers are to cut through and reach their potential audience.

Being seen but not and heard

The study found that attention is influenced by the volume, intensity and style of media consumption.

Of these, “the style in which the media is consumed is a particularly important factor that dictates attention skills,” the authors note.

One clear example of where this sentiment manifests itself is around second screen usage.

Not surprisingly, this type of additional activity can impact on core attention skills among the lucrative millennials market. Microsoft’s Canada study, for example, showed how this cohort is particularly prone to digital distraction.

More widely, time of day, different digital (and non-digital) activities, as well as wider demographic considerations – such as age – can all have an impact.

“The research,” Sagness argues, “highlights a need for brands to create ad experiences that are in tune with shifting audience behaviours.”

The benefit of doing this, he says, is that “those brands that use insights like this to inform their creative and planning development will reach audiences at the right moment, with the right content across the right devices, boosting results and ROI.”

“Understanding the segmentation of your audience is key,” Sagness suggests, “and advertisers must therefore in turn shift their approach to audience engagement to reflect these evolving behaviours and deliver relevant campaigns.”

Classifying consumer behaviours

To help advertisers do this, the report authors identified three attention personas which illustrate how consumers use technology, as well as different ways for digital advertisers to engage with them.

The three different digital guises identified in Microsoft’s study are:

  1. Ninja: when consumers compartmentalise tasks so they can control their attention. Individual activities are allocated specific devices and usually work and play are kept completely separate
  2. Pragmatist: when consumers show some degree of compartmentalisation but use attention skills to combine activities, rather than having rigid rules to organise their day
  3. Ambidextrous: when consumers regularly blend tasks together across devices to do household admin, work and social media activities at the same time

“We created these personas to illustrate the subtle nuances that impact how consumers respond to brand content, particularly in light of multiscreen environments,” Sagness says, noting how just as consumers can display different digital attention models, so they can also belong to one – or all three – of these personas at various points in their day.

Implications for advertisers

This complexity of consumer behaviours makes it all the more important for advertisers to understand their audience’s digital day; alongside how – and when – to best reach specific target groups.

Increasingly, this means engaging consumers quickly, and creating “opportunities to capture consumers’ wandering eyes.”  It also means accepting – and accommodating – the reality of digital distraction.

Digital multi-tasking is viewed as necessity by many media consumers, with sixty-seven per cent of Canadians surveyed by Microsoft say that multi-tasking is essential to getting things done.

Accommodating digital lifestyles 

How advertisers fully embrace the lessons from this study may require further thought, experimentation and innovation. But for Owen Sagness this type of research is a useful starting point.

“At Microsoft,” he says, “we believe the most powerful campaigns start with audience insights.” He highlights work that they’ve done with brands “such as John Lewis, Nissan and Marriott Hotels to create a new breed of insight-driven advertising experiences… using technology as a creative platform to reach audiences with seamless experiences across any screen.”

Given the short attention spans revealed in their research – and the prevalence for multi-screening amongst millennials – perhaps the most important take-away from this study for digital advertisers is the potential importance of cross-platform digital campaigns.

With many consumers constantly flitting between different screens and social media services the need to have high quality, impactful, content everywhere is more acute than ever.

This article was first published on TheMediaBriefing and is republished here with their kind permission.

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