Aligned Intent: A Different Ad Engagement Metric

On Tuesday, I talked about the importance of information foraging in understanding our online behaviors. Yesterday, I talked about how we navigate online based on habit and instinct, keeping our thinking to a minimum. Both of those behaviors are threatening  traditional ad revenue models. The very nature of engagement with advertising is undergoing a dramatic shift. Today, I want to talk more about that shift, because at Enquiro, we’ve seen dramatic evidence of it in our research over the past few years.

The Traditional Model

Let’s begin by exploring how advertising has worked up to now – the model that Rupert Murdoch is still pinning all his hopes on.

In the past, we used a “destination” based information gathering strategy. We depended on someone to gather the information and get it to us at a destination that would become a mental landmark for us. This was the model that gave rise to our traditional news industry. We trusted our favored sources to cover the world for us. It was their job to stay on top of what was happening, interpret it and present it back to us. Publishers developed editorial voices and we grew to trust those voices. We didn’t have time to cover every possible news channel, so we short listed it down to the information sources that best matched our interests and personality. We picked our favourites and trusted these few sources to keep us informed. These favorites formed the most visited locations in our mental information “landscape”.

Once we had our list of a handful of information sources, we would set some time aside every day to stay informed. It was a different paradigm of information gathering. We treated our sources as destinations and made the trip worthwhile by investing some time in it. We’re read the paper in the morning. We’d watch the news at night. We’d listen to news radio. In each of these cases, we’d take a discrete and substantial chunk of our available time and devote it to “staying informed”. There was no specific piece of information we were looking for. We trusted our information sources to serve us something interesting. Our intent wasn’t tied to any particular topic, although there might be sections that we favored (sports or business). Our intent was simply to spend some time with our favorite information source. Just like a trip to a physical destination, we understood that this journey would take some time.

This relationship, that of a favored source, then offered the published a willing set of eyeballs without any set agenda. The audience was there to browse through the content offered. That was the objective. And that objective allowed publishers, and through them, advertisers, to make some safe assumptions: the audience would be there for awhile, the audience had no other urgent priorities, and the audience could be safely categorized by the characteristics of the ideal audience of the channel. One could assume that the reason they favoured the channel was that they matched the target profile. All of this formed the foundation of traditional advertising as we know it.

The publishers job was to amass the audience. By doing so, they could then go to advertisers and deliver the audience. And it was the advertiser’s job to catch the audience’s attention. Again, remember, the audience had already set a significant chunk of time aside to spend with the publisher and the audience had no specific intent other than visiting their information “destination.” This mindset is critical to understand, because it forms the “before” state of the shift I’ll be exploring. The audience had to be distracted by the advertising, but the distraction was a minor derailing of our attention. Let’s dive a little deeper here.

Yesterday, I talked about the switching on and off our our neural autopilots as we do any mental task. Our attention and the full power of our brains only get focused when we need to. The rest of the time, we’re subconsciously scanning to see if there’s anything that merits our attention. The arousal of intent, the mental embedding of a clear objective, kicks the brain into high gear and causes us to focus our attention, including the full power of the frontal lobes – what we can consider the turbocharger of the brain. With those mental mechanics understood, let’s look at how we might browse a newspaper.

Newspapers, or any traditional information source, look the way they do because over years of trial and error, publishers and advertisers have discovered what it takes to catch a few fleeting seconds of a brain’s attention while it’s idling on autopilot. As we pick up the paper, there is no intent which has aroused the full power of the brain. It’s doing what it should be doing, idling as the eyes scan the headlines, graphics and other information cues, looking for something of interest that merits the brain kicking into a higher degree of engagement. What catches our eye depends totally on what we’re interested in. With no set mental agenda, when we look at a newspaper, a story on major crime, a business report on a company we know, a box score for a team we’re a fan of or an ad for a car we’ve been considering all stand a good chance of dragging our eye balls to them and jolting our brain from it’s semi-slumber. The typical display ad (at least, the effective ones) have been honed by years of experimentation to be very good at this. Their entire purpose is to stop the eyeball just long enough for a fragment of the message to sink into the brain.

The Just In Time Information Economy

Now, let’s look at what’s shifted. Through the ubiquity of information online and the reasonable effectiveness of web search in making that information instantly available, we’ve changed the way we gather information. We’ve moved from a “destination” to a “just in time” information economy. Let me return to our food foraging analogy for just a second to illustrate this.

When you shop for groceries, you probably have a favoured store. You trust this store because they have a good selection, the produce is fresh, the deli counter has your favourite cheese, the prices are reasonable, the location is convenient and the staff is courteous. This store becomes your primary food destination, just as a newspaper could become your primary information destination. For certain items, prices may be a little cheaper elsewhere, the produce might be a little better at an organic whole food store and the deli counter may be amazing at a little store you know across town, but it’s just too much trouble to go to all these destinations. You compromise and stick with your store, giving it your loyalty.

But let’s imagine that you could build a pick up window right into your kitchen. Through this pick up window, you could order any food item and it would instantly be delivered to you from any store in the world, right when you need it. No travel was necessary. The idea of a destination suddenly becomes obsolete. Food comes to you, just in time. What would this do to your foraging strategies? How often would you visit your favourite store? Perhaps there would be occasions when an item from your store was offered by your magic “food window”, and you might order it. You might even feel twinges of old loyalties. But the nature of the relationship has forever changed. You’ve become store “agnostic”. Now all you care about are the food items you order. And your intent has also changed. Previously, you went on a “shopping trip” for an hour to a store to pick up a list full of items. Your intent was focused on the store, not an individual item. But with your magic window, if you’re making a recipe and suddenly find you’re out of shallots, your intent is focused on the item you need, not the store you get it from. All you care about is getting the best shallots at the best price. It’s an important mental shift.

That’s what search has done for information. We care much less about the source of the information and more about the nature of the information itself. Also, we have shifted our intent away from the source of the information and to the quality and relevancy of the information itself. This has a profound effect on the nature of engagement with advertising that may sit alongside that information.

The Alignment of Intent

The Just in Time Information Economy has implanted intent in the minds of online users now, dramatically raising the attention threshold that must be bridged by advertising. Think of our mental process as a train. If the train is idling through a rail yard with no particular destination, it’s not that difficult for a hitchhiker (which is what most advertising is, messages interrupting you just long enough to hop on your brain for the ride) to jump on board. But if the train is going full speed towards a destination, the hitchhiker had better be a very fast runner. The Just In Time information economy has meant that many more visitors to online information sites are speeding express trains with a firm destination in mind, rather than than idling in a rail yard. We visit sites because we’ve come through a search engine looking for specific information. The site that hosts that information is secondary to our intent.

In the past few years we’ve done a number of studies of engagement with advertising that have yielded some surprising findings:

  • When it comes to ad awareness (participants remembering seeing an ad on a site) display and video perform best, search and text ads perform worst.
  • When it comes to brand recall (participants remembering the brand featured in the ad) display and video still perform better than search and text, although the gap is dramatically less.
  • When it comes to click throughs, search performs best, followed by text, display and video
  • When it comes to purchase intent, search and text are substantially better than display and video.

Ads that are relevant to the information they sit beside (as in Google’s AdSense network) also have this strange inverse relationship:

  • For ad awareness, non contextually relevant ads performed better than contextually relevant ones
  • For brand recall, it was close to even, with contextually relevant ads having a slight edge
  • For click throughs, contextually relevant ads blew the doors off non contextually relevant ones
  • For purchase intent, again, contextually relevant ads were the clear winner.

Why Ad Awareness Does Not Equal Ad Effectiveness

This is counter intuitive. If an ad is noticed and recognized as an ad, it should have done it’s job, right? According to the old rules, that’s all we ever asked an ad to do. But somehow it seems the rules have changed. Suddenly, ads that often don’t even seem like ads (after all, they’re just a few lines of text) are drastically outperforming more traditional ads where it counts, motivating a prospect to take action. We’ve tested a number of traditional best practices, including more effective creative, increased exposure both through frequency and more channels and this inverse relationship held: search and text outperformed flashing graphics, blaring video and looping audio. What gives?

The answer is the introduction of intent. By having intent planted in the minds of the prospect, by focusing their attention on an objective, the rules of interaction with ads has suddenly changed. When we have intent, we plant a mental objective which narrows our attention and focuses it only on relevant items that get us closer to the objective. Anything not aligned with that intent suffers from “inattentional blindness”. In eye tracking, we see this often has people scan a page, looking directly at an ad for several seconds yet afterwards swear they didn’t see the ad. The most famous example is the video “Gorillas in our Midst.” The unsuspecting are asked to count the number of times the basketball is passed in the video. Once attention is focused, most viewers don’t even notice the man in the gorilla suit walking right through the middle of the teams. If you haven’t seen this, I just spoiled it for you, but you can still try the experiment with your friends.

If a visitor lands on a page with a specific intent, their interactions look much different than those with no intent. They’re laser focused on relevant content. They spend almost no time looking at content that’s not aligned with their intent, including ads. Often, a single glance to identify it as advertising (thus the high ad awareness recall) is the limit of interaction. And the more an ad looks like an ad, the quicker it’s eliminated for consideration. The visitor becomes blind to it.

But if an ad is aligned with intent, it ceases to be an ad. It becomes a relevant information cue, a navigation option, a link laced with information scent. It becomes valuable because it matches our objectives. The user evaluates it along with all the other relevant navigation options on the page. This is exactly what happens with search ads, and the more relevant a text ad on the page, the more likely this is to happen.

Why This Does Not Bode Well for Rupert Murdoch

Murdoch, and for that matter, everyone else who still depends on a revenue from a “Destination” based ad model, will lose in this transition. The ones that will win are those that effectively leverage the alignment of intent and the “Just in Time” Information economy. Tomorrow, I’ll walk through the specifics of why the “Destination” ad model is doomed.

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