As I was sitting in the large, darkened room full of media and marketing professionals at this week’s media summit, a comment was made by one of the speakers that got me thinking, as comments made within earshot often do.
Alan Schulman, co-founder and chief creative officer a digital marketing agency, said that his shop has seen that more people are spending time with online assets that far exceed what we typically see in other media. He suggested that what is needed to evaluate modern media is a new metric that looks at “time spent.”
He is right in saying that an additional metric addressing the level of engagement as indicated by the time one spends with a medium, its vehicle, or the brand represented in the environment should be included in the evaluation of media.
Before rolling your eyes, sighing with fatigue, and grabbing your bottle of Maalox at the thought of yet more data to have to go through, let me explain why this notion is so valuable. In fact, it may be valuable enough to replace other metrics and even lead to a new way of looking at media inventory.
I want you to want me
“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.” This may be a little hyperbolic, but it is accurate to say that the attention of the modern consumer is under assault at all times from every direction. Their lives are filled with work, kids, extracurricular activities; their children’s extracurricular activities, media, and marketing messages — the frequency and number of which are becoming legend. The disparate demands on our consciousness are forcing us into a place where we can only just manage the components of survival; attention, like a plum, loosing a little juice every time you slice it.
In this competition for a piece of your mind is your own peace of mind. To find this, people are consciously and — in order to survive — even unconsciously tuning out what they can when they can. Among the contestants for the prize of attention to be the first to go is advertising.
People have demonstrated a willingness to allocate what little attention they do have to finding ways to avoid advertising (ad blocking software, spam filters, DVRs). As a result, advertising has become a game of dodge ball, with advertisers throwing the ball and the consumer doing everything he or she can to avoid getting hit.
Attention does not just consist of focus, however, but of time. The more time I spend with something the more of my attention it gets.
Pain, fear, and urgency are all effective states advertisers could induce to cut through the clutter and demand our attention (anti-drug advertising is an example of this; so, too, if you think about it, are pleas for assistance and donations from charity organizations). But most brands can’t, shouldn’t, and don’t want to wield such forces. So, what can they do instead?
Coax people into spending more time with a brand.
The only way to get this done in the modern media environment is integration across media platforms. For the time being, I cannot get more engagement with my brand out of an audience than the time allotted me with broadcast. Print is a little better here, in so far as an individual can read your copy and look at your images over and over again for as long as he or she wants. But the protocol is still fixed.
Online, and now portable media platforms like smartphones, I am no longer confined by time and space. If you look at DVRs and podcasting as a means to time shift media usage, one could argue that even broadcast is no longer really restrained by time and space. It is now possible to fill a person’s hours and his or her imagination if and when that person comes seeking brand engagement for as long as he or she chooses to be engaged.
Advertisers in the entertainment categories (movies, music) have been regularly taking advantage of this feature of new media. Product with such a short shelf life needs to live beyond its location of primary engagement if it seeks to maximize its value. A film seen once is great when millions and millions see it. But a film that creates a community of people interested in it allows those people to be involved in ways beyond it just being a film and lends it longevity.
Pharmaceutical companies, too, are using the internet as the primary point for distributing information, letting the television serve as a teaser to peak interest on the part of the audience and thereby creating the conditions for more time spent with the audience and the development of a more quality relationship.
Could time spent with a medium become a unit for sale?
For media companies as a whole, currency has been shaped as some form of time. Certain kinds of people spending time — even just a little — with your media product could translate into premiums not derived with other audiences, but essentially, a media product wants people to spend more time with it. A broadcast or cable network wants you spending more time with it over another and attempts to accomplish this with programming that you find more interesting, entertaining, and engaging. A publisher wants you spending more time with their magazine in your lap than another magazine. The more time you have a particular radio channel tuned in while you are stuck on the freeway, the better it is for that station.
In online, if I can determine how long a unique visitor spends on my site, why not break that time up into units and sell media inventory based on that, rather than the fleeting and quickly forgotten impression?
Back in the olden days, like, in the late 1990s, sites loved to talk about how long visitors stay. Gaming sites bragged that the average visitor was there for umpteen minutes per day. comScore and NetRatings both report on average duration of a visit. Within a short time, however, session lengths were no longer touted as a point of differentiation. But what does any of this mean if there is a different ad popping up on the page each time a unique visitor clicks on something?
The length of time a user spends at a site is not very meaningful to an advertiser buying impressions because what determines the likelihood of a visitor seeing your ad is a function of the rest of the activity of the site, the number of pages visited, and the placements of your creative. The chance of an advertiser’s ad being seen is only as long as it takes for a unique visitor to click to his or her next location.
So why not sell units of time for online media? An impression is so fleeting in the online space that it’s hardly worth much except for a strict direct-response buy. In the awareness/branding world, it takes more than a second to make an impression.
By looking to an inventory standard that allows an opportunity for an advertisement to have impact, that is, the time spent with the medium and, thusly, the brand, we might get closer to having a real sense of effectiveness.