How Our Brains Engage with Online Ads

On Monday, I talked about how our brain found Waldo – how we pick a recognized figure out of a busy background.

Yesterday, I took the same principles and applied them to how our brain scans a webpage.

Today, I want to dive into how the mechanics of our brain’s ability to focus attention impacts our engagement with online ads.

The Role of Engagement

One factor above all others dictates the level of engagement we have with online advertising: are we looking for it? Intent is the spoiler in ad effectiveness. When we have intent that aligns with advertising that’s presented to us, the rules of engagement significantly shift in favor of the ad. I dealt with this at some length in a previous post, so I won’t rehash the topic here. However, in all that follows, it’s important to keep that in mind.

As I laid out yesterday, our intent will determine our information foraging strategy on a web page. We will have an idea of what we’re looking for, perhaps even to the extent of creating a mental picture in our visual cortex, and the attention focusing apparatus in our brain working together with our ability to quickly scan a page in it’s entirety through peripheral vision will help us “thin slice” (to use a term from Gladwell’s Blink) the contents of a page, mentally dividing it up into areas of greater and lesser promise. Clusters of information scent are important here to help guide our attention in the most promising directions, as determined by our intent.

Now, obviously the more detail there is on a page, and the more diverse it is, the harder this attention focusing mechanism has to work. Busy pages make us work harder than clean pages. That’s why we tend to get frustrated with them. I’m not sure this tendency is universal, however. Past eye tracking work seems to suggest that at least some of our visual preferences might be cultural. In China, for example, very busy websites seems to be the norm.

So, we have our peripheral vision scanning a page for relevancy, ready to swing the spotlight of foveal attention in the right directions. What happens now?

Conditioning in a Scan Pattern

When we start scanning a website, our foraging strategy isn’t a blank slate. Because there tends to be some commonalities in how websites are built, we have built up some universal strategies we use to find the most promising content on the page. The examples below from The BuyerSphere Project show how these strategies guide us through the first few seconds of interaction with a web page:


These conditioned patterns allow us to mentally divide up a page for easier digestion. This has significant implications for advertising placed on the page. Ads tend to occupy real estate that is outside this conditioned navigation path. They are usually placed at the top (the much maligned banner ad) or on the right side of the page. Because placement is fairly constant, we have become conditioned to expect advertising in these spots. This makes it a sort of “no man’s land” on most websites. Ads are seldom aligned with intent. They tend to interrupt our intent. So we try to filter them out. Ads start with one strike against them. We might scan them peripherally just to see if there are any relevancy “hits” with our activated “target” neurones, but if there’s no hit, we spend little time with them. The eye tracking heat map below shows the difference in ad engagement when an ad is placed in the top banner position versus a position in the middle of content.


Ad Relevancy

But, what if an ad is relevant? Thanks to Google and other content targeting ad networks, relevancy has been introduced into our ad targeting strategies. This has a significant impact. Enquiro worked with Google to try to quantify the impact of relevancy in a study we conducted in 2008. We gave respondents scenarios that simulated purchase intent and then showed them various websites. Some were relevant to the purchase, some weren’t. Also, some had ads that were contextually targeted and others had general ads which weren’t contextually relevant. The results, shown in the graphs below (again, from The BuyerSphere Project) were somewhat startling and counter intuitive.


While non-relevant ads scored higher on ad awareness (recognizing that there was an ad on the page) they scored much lower on almost every other metric. 3 times more respondents remembered the ad messages in a relevant ad and  5 times more respondents indicated that the advertised ad would make their short list of candidates. In “intent to purchase” the non-relevant ads actually performed worse than the control group (who saw no ad) and significantly worse than the relevant ad group.

How Hard Do Ads Have to Work?

In my post on the alignment of intent, I said that ads that don’t benefit from aligned intent have to work much harder to get our attention. Ads that are aligned with intent (search ads are probably the best example) can be much more subtle. This was shown in another study Enquiro conducted in 2007. We found that while more intrusive ads (i.e. video ads) did a better job at attracting our eyeballs, they didn’t do so well in convincing us to consider the advertised product. Which ad format performed the best? The lowly text ad, if it was relevant and aligned with consumer intent.


Let’s go back to our mental attention focusing apparatus and explore some of the possible reasons for this advertising dilemma: why do the ads that are best at grabbing our attention seem to be the worst at putting us in a positive frame of mind about a potential purchase (note: I have reservations about the research methodology here, which I’ll talk about at the end of this post)? Remember, we go to a webpage with a specific intent. Intrusive, interruptive ads have to pull out a bag of tricks to hijack our attention. The most effective of these play directly into the properties of peripheral vision, which acts as a type of early warning system for us. Peripheral vision evolved to keep us alive and warn us of potential danger. What signal is the most reliable predictor of potential danger? You guessed it – movement. Something moving in the corner of our eye is sure to get our attention. But it comes at an emotional cost.

The brain has a rather effective mechanism that allows us to put our tasks on hold if it believes we’re in danger. In effect, the prefrontal cortex – the thinking part of our brain – is bypassed by our danger circuits, routed directly into the amygdala and sub-cortex – the “animal” part of our brain. Movement in our field of vision gets us ready to flee or fight.

Now, you say, that’s ridiculous. Even the most annoying online ads don’t cause you to suddenly run away from your laptop. No, but there’s an element of proportionate response here. The brain also has a slightly delayed dampening circuit that assesses potential danger and shuts down the alarm if it proves to be false. In extreme cases (the oft-cited example of a garden hose mistaken for a snake in your shed) your heart stops racing, adrenaline stops pumping and your hands stop shaking. In mild cases (i.e. intrusive ads) it’s a much more subtle sense of anxiety and annoyance. The mechanism is the same, it’s the degree that differs.

Think about how annoying you find a particularly intrusive ad on a website where you’re there for a purpose other than to look at the ad in question. One of the key sins in usability is using movement in a page element which is not of primary importance in the page. The eye is continually dragged away from what it is trying to do. Yet, this is exactly what most sites do when they include rich media or video ads. Yes, the ads get our attention but in doing so, they almost always piss us off. The reason is that we resent being tricked into paying attention when our intention is to do something else.

Now, I said I did have quibbles with typical ad effectiveness metrics that we and almost everyone else uses in most effectiveness studies. The opinion we get from a respondent immediately after exposure to an ad is typically not very indicative of the longer term effectiveness of an ad. For one thing, it doesn’t capture the subliminal influence of an ad. Barring any compelling empirical evidence, it’s difficult to say what the long term effectiveness of an intrusive but annoying ad might be.

Tomorrow, I’ll pick up this topic again as we look at how our attention focusing plays out on a page of search results.

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