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The Ethics of Attention

Aug 15, 2016

We are living in an attention economy. As individuals it has become one of our most valuable yet fragile resources.

In the last 15 years our attention spans have dropped a third to about 8 seconds (now a second shorter than a goldfish!) - a response to the increase in stimuli that we are bombarded by on a daily basis.

As marketers we are spending more and more on platforms that command consumers time (i.e. social & mobile), but if our industry is to sustain itself we have a responsibility to think of the ethics of how we generate attention for our brands.

The latin route of attention is tenere which means 'to stretch' or 'make tense' and this is a particularly apt description for the digital ad ecosystem.  Internet users, especially younger generations, are becoming more sensitive to the noise that advertising adds to their experience and the cost to their attention. This interruption is the primary reason (given to a recent YouGov/IAB UK poll) for the increasing use of ad blockers.

Why people blog online ads

The Challenge

To maintain an ad-funded internet (where brands are still able to reach consumers through paid media), we need to start being respectful and considering the user experience rather than just the brand outcome. This means thinking about the the message and, dare I say, content that is created, but also thinking about the nature of a users interaction with it.

The content is obviously important. Unless we create valuable, meaningful work, it will be ineffective or ignored. However, to borrow a metaphor from Dave Trott, the lorry (the delivery mechanism) also matters! It's time to start focusing beyond the number of interactions a campaign delivers (I won't start on whether I think clicks are a bad success metric) and consider how the message is being delivered. Are we respecting the user & valuing their attention? Are we considering the ad's impact on the overwhelming majority of consumers who don't choose to interact?

"It's funny that clicking on an ad is the default measure of success, not noticing it, liking it, feeling something, learning something." - @tomfgoodwin

What's Next?

The Acceptable Ads Manifesto, a set of guidelines designed by AdblockPlus (Disclosure: we've signed up), starts putting this delivery responsibility into more accountable form:

  1. Acceptable Ads are not annoying.
  2. Acceptable Ads do not disrupt or distort the page content we're trying to read.
  3. Acceptable Ads are transparent with us about being an ad.
  4. Acceptable Ads are effective without shouting at us.
  5. Acceptable Ads are appropriate to the site that we are on.

This is a positive start, and the full manifesto is well worth reading (it's petition also just hit 18k supporters). However, as an industry we need to put our money where our motivation is - respecting consumers, adding to their browsing experience & being sensitive to their (cognitive & digital) bandwidth.

Story by Ally Stuart

Ally is Strategy Director for Sharethrough. He leads the EMEA office; building partnerships with agencies, brands and publishers across Europe. Sharethrough is the leading global native advertising platform, helping publishers maximise revenue and brands earn meaningful attention by powering ads that fit into - rather than interrupt - the audience experience. Sharethrough’s flagship product, Sharethrough for Publishers (SFP), is a Supply Side Platform that powers over three billion monthly ad impressions for the world’s leading publishers, including CNN International, Time Inc., Sky Media, Scripps Networks Interactive, Wenner Media, USA Today Sports, and Forbes.

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