The Elusive Goal of Ad Engagement

First published October 16, 2008 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I talked about the nature of engagement and the neural mechanisms that underlie it. This week, I want to explore why those same mechanisms dictate that our search interactions are going to be completely different from engagement with a TV ad or a billboard.

The key thing to understand here is how we’re driven by goals. In a drastic oversimplification, goals are the objectives that drive our information processing modules, more commonly known as our brain. Our “mind” and all that we know about ourselves are shifting patterns of information being processed in these modules. At multiple levels, we sift through data, make decisions and initiate actions to get us closer to our goals.

Goal Interrupted

Most advertising is interruptive. It’s a detour on the road to our goals. The holy grail of direct marketing is to time delivery of the message so that it coincides with our pursuit of a goal. If you can get a realtor brochure to my doorstep at exactly the time I’m thinking of putting my house up for sale, you’ve substantially increased the odds of active engagement with your advertising message. But despite the advances in targeting methods, the odds of perfect coincidence are frustratingly slim. So advertising has to depend on other methods, like emotion, to trigger primal reactions and force suspension of current goal pursuit to engage with the message.

One of the comments on last week’s column, by fellow Search Insider Kaila Colbin, provides a perfect example of this. Kaila provided a link to a particularly powerful use of emotion in a TV ad from New Zealand Post. Now, despite the powerful emotional appeal, in a typical stream of ads inserted in a commercial block in network programming, the ad would still need to batter our way into our consciousness. With Kaila it succeeded once, hitting all the right emotional cues, and so her subconscious has been primed to respond to this ad should it appear on the radar screen of her constant scanning of her environment. In Kaila’s case, she would rush to the TV to change the channel, preventing her from dissolving into a messy puddle of tears.

Active Engagement

But by drawing our attention to the link, Kaila set up a totally different nature of engagement. She embedded the concept in our working memory by allowing us to create a goal around the viewing of the ad. We were engaged with the concept on a totally different level. Watching the ad was the goal, so no diversion of attention was required. We were primed to pay attention by Kaila’s recommendation. This is the power of ads that go viral in social networks, like Dove’s Evolution.

This concept of attention is at the center of two targeting tactics that have proven effective in the online environment: behavioral and contextual targeting.

Engaging Tactics

With behavioral targeting, we track behavioral cues through clickstreams, hoping that it will improve our odds of presenting our advertising message at exactly the right time to coincide with our target’s pursuit of a goal. The well-timed presentation of an ad for Chinese hotel rooms at almost the same time I was planning a trip to China was an example I’ve talked about before. Because planning for the trip had recently occupied my working memory and presumably I hadn’t yet reached my goal (the trip wasn’t completely planned yet), this message stood a pretty good chance of being engaged with (despite the fact that it creeped me out a little).

Contextual targeting employs a different but related strategy. If advertising messages are about the same topics as the content that I’m engaging with, transference of that engagement should be easier than with unrelated topics. Indeed, at Enquiro we’ve found that engagement with these ads actually occurs at two levels. There’s the initial awareness of the ad and the subsequent decision to engage with the ad. We’ve found that awareness is often higher with non-contextually targeted ads, but engagement and recall is higher with contextual ads. I have my theories about why this is so (having to do with the nature of the creative and the interplay of active consciousness and selective perception) but that could fill up an entire column in itself.

Engaging Search

Finally, we have search. In my previous examples of online targeting, we’re still using our best guess about optimum timing based on some pretty broad assumptions: click streams provide an accurate measure of intent, and interest in content means interest in related advertising messages. These targeting methods simply improve the odds in what is still essentially an interruption in the pursuit of a goal. But use of search is inherently aligned with goal pursuit. Information gathering is a key subtask in the pursuit of many goals, and search is an important tool in our information foraging arsenal. The goal is firmly embedded in our working memory and we’re on high alert for cues relevant to our end goal. This is why information scent in search results is so critical. No diversion of attention is required. Our attention is firmly focused on the results presented on the search page (both paid and algorithmic), because we believe that one of those results will take us one step closer to the goal.

This concept of active engagement is key to understanding search’s role in branding. Next week, I’ll look at how our cognitive mechanisms digest the results on a search page.

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