Hey, Look Over Here… Yes, HERE…

Many of us in the ad biz probably watched the Super Bowl just to see the commercials (unless, of course, like me you live in Baltimore and had other reasons to watch, but I’m not going to rub it in!). That’s a rare occurrence. Most of the time we don’t go out of our way to watch ads. Instead, ads are seen while we’re trying to pay attention to other stuff.

The same often goes for how we buy products. Though we ostensibly go into a store to buy a specific item, chances are that we walk out with more than we intended to buy. You go to the grocery store with a list in hand, but those cookies look so good…

Or think about catalogs. Sure, we all occasionally block out time to buy stuff from catalogs, but much of the time we see goods in catalogs because we like to look at them, because we’re browsing through them on the couch in front of the TV, in bed, or in the bathroom (come on… you know you do!). Unless we have a specific need in mind (a new computer, some piece of software, a new coat), catalogs are fairly opportunistic, something that we encounter multiple times until we realize that we must have the thing that catches our fancy, then we pick up the phone or go to the Web to buy it.

Shopping behavior of all kinds follows this pattern, as does most advertising. We rarely go in search of specific things or seek out marketing messages unless we’ve got a specific goal in mind. Instead, opportunities to buy, see commercial messages, and interact with specific brands are basically always there, competing for attention and inserting themselves into our attention stream.

Bound by Time and Space

Our attention stream is linear, bound by time and space. We have a hard time paying attention to more than one thing at a time. Even when looking at a Web site or a magazine page with multiple ads, our attention (if it’s at all grabbed away from the content) goes to one ad, and only then to another — maybe.

That’s why television and radio commercials and full-page print ads are so effective. They break into the attention stream and divert it, some by breaking into time (TV and radio spots) and some by breaking into space (print, outdoor, and, to some extent, Web ads). But although they break into the attention stream to divert it, they don’t require any immediate action to divert to an unintended destination. You don’t have to call, you don’t have go to the store and buy the new box of Super Snuggle Sugar Pop Toasties.

When you look at advertising and retailing in the context of manipulating the attention stream, our current models of e-commerce and online advertising start to look pretty silly. Here’s why.

First, E-Commerce

Most e-commerce sites are destinations that require an “appointment” to visit. If you decide that you want to buy something, you have to remember what site has what you’re looking for, go to the site, find the product, go through the rigmarole of purchasing it, then wait for the item to come. There’s very little impulse-buying or even contact with the site unless the user decides to go there to buy. Of course, this means that you have the full attention of people who come to the site (in most cases), but it also means that you have to do some serious work to bend their attention stream to flow toward your site. And once you’ve got them there, they’re probably focused on the item or category they’re interested in and may actually resist being redirected.

That’s a lot of heavy lifting for the e-commerce retailer and the consumer. Staying in the consumers’ consciousness is difficult. That’s why email is such a great way to break into the attention stream and stay in front of them. It’s also why advertising is so important: Building a brand to a point where it becomes the choice for the consumer is vital. Letting people know what you do to rise above the noise and enter into the attention stream is more important on the Web then nearly anywhere else. Nobody’s ever going to “drive by” your “store.” Those “information superhighway” metaphors were totally wrong; it’s really more of an “information tunnel” that branches out in infinite directions but only allows you to visit one place at a time.

Second, Online Advertising

Let’s face it. There have been a lot of problems. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that banner ads are bad and “don’t work.” The definition of what works and what doesn’t depends in part on a definition of outcomes. If driving direct traffic for a time-specific offer is your goal, then click-throughs probably are the best measure of effectiveness. However, if your goal is to gain entrance into the attention stream and build brand, getting people to notice your ad, regardless of whether they click on it, should be your measure of success.

As click-through rates decline, the branding versus click debate is sure to rage even hotter than it is now. Advertising agencies and networks have a vested interest in selling the “branding click-throughs don’t matter” story. Advertisers want accountability. But those on both sides of this issue have ignored the fundamental point: It’s not whether one is right, but whether one is right based on the desired outcome.

Contextual commerce” is a hot catch phrase right now because it seems to be an effective way of breaking into the attention stream and driving sales. In the contextual commerce model, buying opportunities are embedded seamlessly into content: Read a book review and buy the book, read about a celebrity’s favorite designer and buy the latest frock, and so on. The jury’s still out on how effective this will be in the long run (though it’s essentially what Amazon.com’s been doing for a while and what Garden.com tried to do before it bit the dust), but if you think about contextual commerce in the light of the attention-stream model, it makes sense.

What Works?

Advertising (in all forms) that breaks into the attention stream has worked in the past and will continue to work in the future. But this doesn’t mean that we should adopt a TV-like model for the Web. The Web’s an active medium, TV’s passive, and people don’t like having their activity (attention stream) diverted if they’re used to controlling it. But if we marketers and advertisers are going to effectively gain a share of consumers’ attention, we’re going to have to break into the attention stream. Sponsorships and email seem to work. Advertorials seem to work. Why? Because they balance the users’ need for control with the advertisers’ need to break into the attention stream.

Before we declare any model dead we need to remember that it took TV at least 20 years to truly begin to understand what works in the medium and what doesn’t. We’re still in the learning phase. Maybe banners work. Maybe they don’t. In the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is whether something works for what you’re trying to accomplish and making sure that what you’re trying to accomplish is going to build your business.

Understanding how to divert the attention stream is one way of getting to where you want to go.

Related reading

Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.