The clock’s ticking for the click, and its replacement is rounding the corner: attention.
Real-time analytics startup Chartbeat has some illustrious publisher partners on board for its attention-based metrics – which snagged Media Rating Council (MRC) accreditation last week – including the Financial Times (FT), Wall Street Journal and Time.com.
While publishers have traditionally used click-through rates (CTR) to monetize content, the move to attention metrics has what FT commercial director of global digital advertising and insight Jon Slade calls “a profound effect on how we price access to our audience.”
He stopped short of sounding the death knell for old-school metrics like cost per mille and CTR. “We’re not saying they’re entirely useless measures for brand work like display or native, but we are saying that now there’s something more appropriate.”
FT uses attention metrics to price its display advertising based on the amount of time a user spends with its content or platforms.
“Instead of ascribing value simply to a mechanical data point – page impressions – we’re putting value to actual user behavior,” Slade said. “We’re not pricing for thousands of server pings, we’re pricing for time spent [and] advertisers really love this. Attention is a meaningful metric for brand advertising and a far closer proxy to the ambitions of a brand campaign.”
When publishers are incentivized to monetize on a page impression rather than on the quality of their content, they’re effectively enabling and participating in a race to the bottom, said Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile.
CTR might make sense for direct response, but it’s far from ideal for measuring a KPI like brand awareness. As Haile put it: “No one clicks through a Tiffany’s ad to buy a bracelet and no one clicks through a Miller Lite ad and buy a six-pack. Those ads are there to communicate a message and persuade.”
Lack of transparency is one factor keeping brand budgets out of digital and mobile in favor of mediums where they feel safe, like TV.
And without cash for content, quality suffers, said Haile. It’s an unsustainable spiral that encourages publishers to churn out things like low-quality slideshows or manipulative headlines to juice page views.
“For the publisher, time is the only unit of scarcity on the web and it’s very hard for them to capture it when people have every form of media just a click away,” Haile said. “We’re faced with a world of infinite inventory and pricing is trending toward zero. That’s a huge problem.”
Paying For Attention
It’s always been possible to track time spent, but the traditional method for doing so is a bit “dodgy,” Haile said. When someone visits a website, a time stamp is generated. If that person clicks on a second page, a second stamp is generated, and so on. The time between those clicks and page loads is commonly accepted as time spent on site.
But if someone’s browsing with multiple tabs open or if they get up from their desk to grab a cup of coffee, it all breaks down.
Chartbeat’s answer is to track human behavior, said Haile. Chartbeat ran a series of lab studies with about 5,000 participants to examine, second by second, how people really engage with content and the advertising around that content.
According to Chartbeat, the average user in the process of actively engaging with a piece of content will take some kind of action, be it a scroll or a mouse click, every 4.8 seconds 95% of the time. It’s that insight that forms the basis for Chartbeat’s MRC-approved “engaged time” metric.
“We check in to see what a user is doing between clicks and impressions every single second to make sure they’re doing something to prove they have a pulse,” Haile said. “And to do that, we’re continually asking three questions: One, is this the action window in the browser? Two, what pixels are in view at that moment and what’s inside them – an ad or content? And three, have we heard from you in the last second to suggest that you’re alive and doing something?”
No More Native Arbitrage?
Beyond representing an alternative to CTR, the shift to an “attention economy” could also affect how publishers package native and how advertisers buy it by doing away with “effective arbitrage,” said Haile. Back in May, Chartbeat also released new measurement tools for native to track engagement with sponsored, vs. editorial, content on a web page.
“Advertisers are very frustrated with the performance of native, in particular when they’re given success metrics around things like page views and social shares, which they know are being bought,” he said. “But it’s very difficult to buy someone’s attention.”
It’s an issue Kelly Andresen, director of ad innovations and product strategy at The Washington Post, also noted in a previous interview with AdExchanger. “When you move into content marketing, it’s a whole different conversation than standard display advertising,” she said. “A click-through rate is not going to tell you a story of how your native campaign performed.”
Although FT isn’t using attention metrics to price content marketing projects at the moment, it is tapping into engagement metrics and looking at time spent within the parameters of its native relationships.
“We feel there’s a clear and intuitive line of logic here: Time matters,” Slade said. “And the positive response we’re getting from advertisers would support that.”
Of course, it’s arguable that some publishers might balk at a move away from CTR. It would certainly force them to ditch click bait in favor of more substantial fare. But, according to Slade, the publishing community is more than ready to wave farewell to the click-through.
“I haven’t spoken to a publisher in a long time who feels that clicks are the best way, or even a reasonable way, to measure the value they bring – but until now, there hasn’t been a great alternative,” he said. “I can imagine that some publishers might be nervous about how much ‘attention’ they actually command, so a good place to start is to find out. My bet is that if your content is good and your platforms are engaging, you’ll be in a good place.”
In other words, Slade said: “Quality, not quantity, is the game in town.”