How The Economist’s approach to attention trading will alter the sales pitch

Both sides will profit: the advertiser, who buys guaranteed attention time instead of reach as well as the publisher, who might be able to sell ad space at higher margin. It’s good news for publishers, which could split their ad sales strategy offering v CPM models for ad space above the fold (ATF) and a CPH model for campaigns below the fold (BTF).

Over the years, advertisers became increasingly frustrated about paying for ads online no one sees. Think of an ad placed at the bottom of a page but users don’t scroll down. A structural problem no one can ignore. A study in 2014 conducted by Google found out, that 56.1 per cent of impressions are not seen. Why should marketers pay for no value? Sellers always argued, that non-viewable ads were priced into the cost of their display inventory early on, and were not willing to lower the already eroding prices even further. Advertisers of course want their campaigns to have impact, to get their message across or to trigger a specific action among their target audience. A global discussion started about how to move away from a common industry standard, from an impression driven towards an impressions-viewed model, headed by the industry bodies. Viewability became the new buzzword and a new requirement, which marks the industry’s “shift toward valuing viewable rather than served impressions“.

But when do we call an ad viewable? – According to the Media Rating Council and IAB standards, a viewable impression occurs when 50 per cent of an ad’s pixels are “on an in-focus browser tab on the viewable space of the browser page” for one second. The new metric finally led Google’s Doubleclick introduce vCPM end of September 2015, an product offering, which charges only for viewable ads.

No doubt, v CPM was a first step into the right direction. But viewability is no guarantee for users’ attention. Who says, that someone spends really time on ads if they’re viewable? And attention is what matters. Research has shown that the more attention ads get, the higher is their impact on traditional brand metrics. Studies from Yahoo and Google found that ads between five – 30 second have the biggest effect on ad recall, recognition or click through rate (CTR). 

As viewability is not attention it also doesn’t necessarily lead to it. In a study in 2015, The Economist compared campaign performance of twelve different clients with interesting outcome. Campaigns optimised for viewability, ads usually shown ATF, achieved lower active view time than those that were not. In contrast ads BTF are usually less viewable but achieved 31 per cent more active view time compared to those Above the Fold according to the study. Depending on where the ads appeared and how captive the user was the time of exposure with the ads differed. Some impressions achieved five seconds of active view time and some 15 seconds but this wasn’t taken into account. In the study, impressions were valued equally.

The Economist viewability chart ()

In response to these findings, The Economist introduced a Cost Per Hour (CPH) model. “An impression would have to generate more than five seconds of active view time, for the time from the impression to count towards the overall CPH goal,” Ashwin Sridhar, The Economist’s Global Head of Digital Products Revenue, explains and adds: “We cap the attention at 30 seconds. So if an ad is in view for 90 seconds we only count that as 30 seconds towards to the overall time goal.” A major shift, as The Economist in this model wants advertisers only pay for a certain amount of active view time. A view time is active if a user scrolls, moves her mouse, clicks etc. An approach it calls attention trading.

Their pitch: “In the viewability model, buying a 1,000 viewable impression only guarantees a min of 1000 sec of ad display time. Buying on CPH guarantees 3,600 seconds of active view time or a minimum of 120 readers ‘paying attention’ to an ad for 30 seconds.” It marks the shift away from counting viewable impressions towards a greater focus on view time itself. It doesn’t necessarily say, that more people will have viewed the advertising but trades the actual time as a currency.

Ashwin Sridhar, global head of Economist digital products revenue, said: “Viewability is above the fold, attention below the fold. Ads below the fold actually do the heavy lifting. They are viewable less often, but when they are, they’re in view much longer and have a larger share of user’s attention on page.”

What model serves advertisers’ interest better? A CPM model which delivers 1,000 viewable impressions but no guarantee for attention or a minimum of 120 readers who paid attention to the ad for an effective amount of time? Asked for his opinion on the attention economy, GigaOM’s founder and industry pioneer Om Malik said he loves the Economist approach. But he also points out that the publication has a strong stature and relationship with readers and has its stake holders behind it, to support such an approach to the market. 

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