3 Attention Metrics Preparing to Transform the Way You Measure Content

Back in the early days of online advertising, all anyone cared about was the mighty impression.

If someone saw our ad in their web browser, it was such a novel and unique experience that nobody worried too much about how much they saw, how long they looked, or how long the ad stayed in view.

(Of course, even if we had been worried about those things, the analytics capabilities couldn’t have told us anything yet anyway.)

Additionally, at that point, online readers were still willing to trade small amounts of their attention for access to entertainment because they were still operating in the ad-driven consumption model popularized by TV and radio.

Fast forward to 2016, and everybody has much more sophisticated tastes.

Audiences dole out their attention in tiny, goldfish-sized parcels, and online publishers are starved not only for these attention particles, but for information on where it’s coming from and how to get more of it.

We are rapidly entering the world of attention metrics, and if you’re not familiar with these shiny new data points, it’s time to brush up.

What is an Attention Metric Anyway?

Attention metrics are a category of measurement designed to determine whether or not a website visitor actually paid attention to an ad or a piece of content.

While they originated as an alternative means of tracking the performance of advertisements, they’re being expanded to track audience engagement on native and sponsored content too.

Upworthy, for example, has created their own unique metric that they call “attention minutes.”

On their blog, they explain that the old school “time on page” metric just wasn’t giving them the insight into user behavior that they wanted.

So, they “built attention minutes to look at a wide range of signals — everything from video player signals about whether a video is currently playing, to a user’s mouse movements to which browser tab is currently open — to determine whether the user is still engaged.”

Three Key Attention Metrics You Need to Know

While standard metrics like time on page or scroll depth arguably track how much attention people are paying to a page, these three are designed specifically to measure how readers are interacting with online ads (for the purposes of this piece, I’m including sponsored content under the umbrella online advertising. Feel free to argue with me in the comments.).

Total time read (TTR)

Used by Medium for its sponsored content program launched in April of this year, this data point tells you how long someone was actually reading your piece of sponsored content.

Joe Purzycki, Medium’s head of partnerships, says that even though TTR is still a nonstandard metric, it’s introducing “a broader conversation about time and attention as commodities in the digital space.”


Arguably the simplest of the new attention metrics, viewability focuses on the percentage of an ad that is in view and for how long.

The standard for video viewability set by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) is that at least 50% of an ad is in view for at least two continuous seconds. For display impressions, it requires a minimum of 50% of pixels in view for a minimum of one second.

The Financial Times has been experimenting with how viewability, i.e. the time spent viewing an ad, impacts traditional brand recall. They ran campaigns with five major brands, and used Milward Brown to quantify their results.

The found that when active users saw 100% viewable ads for five seconds or more, “brand lift increased by 79%, while familiarity went up by 55%, brand association grew by 51%, and brand consideration saw a 58% boost.”

View-through rate

This one is exclusive to online videos, and it measure the percentage of people who play videos in their entirety.

It is, in essence, a proxy metric for completion and engagement. In the hyper-crowded world of online video, increasing view-through rate may soon be the holy grail of video marketing metrics.

The Real Struggle to Adopt Attention Metrics

The main reason you don’t have a viewability report in your Google Analytics yet is that these metrics, while gaining traction with forward-thinking publishers and advertisers, are disruptive to typical ad-buying procedures.

Let’s hear from a couple of ad buyers themselves to find out how they feel about buying ads based on TTR or other time-based measurements:

“We’re not buying that way. We’re buying clicks, impressions, audience. That’s the criteria we’re looking at when we’re evaluating performance.” – Media Kitchen president Barry Lowenthal

“I haven’t bought anything on a cost per hour. GroupM doesn’t care about time on an ad; GroupM cares about whether an ad’s 100 percent in view.” – GroupM chief digital and analytics officer Steve Carbone

These and other buying groups are hesitant about attention metrics for four core reasons, according to Vertamedia:

  1. The subjectivity of attention. Attention is an internal, highly subjective thing to try and measure.
  2. Too many variables. Should attention be measured by pixels present, viewability, interactability, time displayed, or some combination of these?
  3. Flexibility in existing models. For an advertising server to integrate this type of new functionality would require a slight overhaul, while existing models seem to work pretty well as they are.
  4. Early development. The technology needed to track attention metrics, while exciting, is still in its early stages.

Attention Metrics Could be a Game-Changer

Although not widely adopted yet, keep your eyes on these emerging data points.

Not only do they provide a new level of tracking capability, they may offer more motivation for brands to create content that people actually want to spend time looking at.

As both a content marketer and someone who spends a lot of time consuming online content, that’s some of the best news I’ve heard all week.

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Andrea Fryrear
About the Author:

Andrea Fryrear

Andrea loves to dissect marketing buzzwords and fads looking for the pearls of wisdom at their cores. Her favorite topic is agile marketing, which she believes holds the key to a more fulfilling (and less stressful) marketing career for individuals and a more powerful marketing department for business. When not scrutinizing the latest agile methodologies, Andrea can be found on the volleyball court, at the park with her two delightful kids, or baking “calorie-free” cookies. Connect with her on Twitter @AndreaFryrear, or on LinkedIn.

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