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Does This Grab You? - A global study by Mediaedge:cia looked at the growing fragmentation of consumer attention and how to engage those in a state of partial attention

Audience engagement is an area of keen interest for brands and marketers; but with the growing adoption of technologies that facilitate the fragmentation of attention, creating engagement with consumers is becoming harder.

This project looked at multitasking and ‘partial-attention’ behavior, and their effects on receptivity to communication, in order to help us understand how we might more actively engage audiences whose attention is fragmented or partial. This is a broader consideration than simple ‘media multitasking’: the study looks at how people juggle multiple simultaneous tasks (which may include media), to consider the effect of splitting attention across different stimuli.

What our research shows is that in spite of the global spread of fragmented attention, people can and do give their attention to commercial communication – but, importantly, only when and where it suits them. Predicting the likelihood of this attention can be made easier by considering the different ‘states of attention’ in which particular target audiences may be found.

There is no engagement without attention
Any focus on audience engagement is with good reason – because engagement builds deeper relationships with consumers and leads to higher sales:

“If a consumer becomes engaged at the highest level [of attention] with a piece of marketing, it can become integrated into the consumer’s long-term memory and be used for making purchase decisions.” Cognitive Neuroscience: marketing and research, Raymond & Page, Millward Brown, 2006

But the growing adoption of technologies that divert, fragment and scatter our attention has created behavior that threatens traditional and emerging models of commercial communication that should lead to engagement:

Continuous partial attention: A state in which most of one’s attention is on a primary task, but where one is also monitoring several background tasks just in case something more important or interesting comes up.” Definition from

Ordinary people (the ‘target audience’) don’t think this is a problem: many will report that they can simultaneously concentrate on multiple tasks (52% globally). But neuroscience may tell you different: what actually happens in the great majority of human brains is more akin to a toggling of attention – when doing more than one thing ‘simultaneously’, we actually switch our focus between different stimuli. Of course, the problem for advertisers looking to engage their audience is that exposure to a brand can only lead to engagement if you have the audience’s attention. But if attention is like a ‘radio button’ – and you’re switching it on and off – the chances are you aren’t truly concentrating on anything.

Brands and their communication get the attention they deserve – and no more
“I often start to watch a film and find myself ignoring it and doing something else… I will try and go back to watch the film but I will generally only watch it for five minutes or so before continuing with something else once again.”

New technology may help to fragment people’s attention as never before, but one thing hasn’t changed: people continue to pay attention to relevant content that is worth their attention. The success of online content sites (such as YouTube) comfortably demonstrates this.

Our research showed that when something is important enough, people will focus upon it, and that they multitask things only when they do not warrant full focus – that is, if they can get what they want from a stimulus without fully engaging with it:

“I find it very rare that a TV program will need my full attention.”

This doesn’t mean they’re not interested in it – but that they use only the level of attention they feel is appropriate to get what they want or need from it:

“I’ll always concentrate fully on a film because you can miss important plot information if you don’t pay attention.”

Accordingly, people split their attention even when using the most theoretically engaging content. For example, while watching their favorite TV program, 25% of 18–24s globally always or often use a cell phone, and 20% use the internet to communicate or socialize. With numerous choices other than the ones that we (as advertisers or content suppliers) present to them, audiences give us precisely the amount of attention they feel we deserve, and no more. It seems that brand communication must make a greater effort than ever to be interesting, entertaining, timely and relevant. While this process may begin by considering the noticeability of a brand touch point – the inherent quality which may make it more (or less) salient – more important is the examination of the state of attention in which a target consumer is most likely to be exposed to that touch point.

Using background media for engagement
A disconcerting proportion of media exposure takes place in the background to other tasks and behaviors, including media consumption: for example, 39% of people globally always or often have TV on in the background while doing other tasks at home; this rises to 56% in Russia, and 52% in the US and Mexico.

“I will almost always have something on in the background if it is available.”

This background media use can also be observed at work: 29% of people around the world have the radio on in the background while performing another task at work, while 18% have the TV on (rising to 25% in India, 26% in the US and 33% in Brazil).

“I often watch TV or a DVD while also talking to people on messenger services on the internet as well as playing a game at the same time. Also, even during this I find that I may be on the phone as well. This obviously means that I pay little attention to the TV and it is only a noise in the background.”

This widespread use of background media will be a concern for some advertisers (particularly those using TV for traditional advertising). But the nature of partial attention presents a real opportunity for background channels to engage people, given the appropriate content and context. In order to deal with the weight of information around us, we have become adept at scanning incoming communication when in partial attention. Advertisers must consider the context in which background media use takes place, and what will make people look up in that context: why should they sit up and take notice, however temporarily? Brand communication must capture attention immediately – giving people a reason to read on, to engage, to act.

The attention continuum: states of attention that govern our receptivity to external stimuli
Our study identified five states of attention that form an ‘attention continuum’ (see chart above). Advertisers should consider where on the continuum their audience will be when they communicate with them – which will be heavily influenced by context – because it is a person’s position on this continuum that governs their receptivity to different types of commercial message, as well as the most appropriate message and methods of delivery.

Context, content and engagement
“A good interruption is something like a friend ringing you, but a bad interruption can be the same [call] but at a different time when you’re busy or annoyed, so your mood or what you’re doing is usually the difference between the two.”

Observing different states of attention means we must recognize that the same media behavior can have different functions and meanings, depending upon someone’s position on the continuum. Accordingly, registering a person’s exposure to a medium is meaningless without the relevance of the content being delivered, and the context in which it is consumed (context can be defined as a combination of location and purpose: why the audience is in a particular place, and what the communication can do for them while they are there).

Content is such an important consideration because people are less likely to split their attention when they are consuming content that they find more engaging: for example, while 36% of people will use their cell phones when watching TV, this drops to 15% during their favorite TV program.

Context is important because it dictates relevance (for example, you may be in an airport, but whether you are there for business or leisure will have significant influence upon your behavior). Therefore, context will also dictate the role of the medium, and whether it performs a primary or background role.

Media researchers are understandably keen to demonstrate which channels are inherently more engaging than others, but context and content will have a far greater influence on bringing people out of partial attention and into focus than their simple location, or the communication channels they are exposed to. However, the consideration of channels (or brand touch points) remains vital.

At the simplest level, this is because it appears that people are more likely to experience, for example, a state of full focus when using particular media, such as watching TV or using the internet (37% experience this while watching TV, and 55% while on the internet).

But this is not the same as saying one medium is, in itself, more engaging than another. Rather, some channels have properties that can enhance the delivery of different types of content within different contexts – and this will have a powerful effect on attention and, ultimately, engagement.

The return of interruption as a marketing tactic?
In spite of consumer demand for co-creative marketing and partnership with brands, the different states of attention suggest there is a still a valid role for ‘interruption marketing’ – albeit only when used responsibly and appropriately.

“The best interruption is one that is directly relevant to the task at hand and prevents mistakes that I might have made if I hadn’t been interrupted.”

At the focused end of the attention continuum, interruptions are generally unwelcome: 61% of people are unwilling to be interrupted when in full focus, and 59% when multitasking. But as people move towards open attention and beyond, they become more open to new stimuli – willing to be distracted by something more interesting than what they are currently doing.

“A bad interruption [is] one that leads to a less interesting task than I am currently doing, whereas a good interruption is one that leads to a more interesting task. Therefore I am more open to interruption when I’m doing something less interesting as I have more hope that it will be good interruption.”

Given the challenge of capturing people’s attention, relevant interruptions must consciously lead to engagement, relationship building and action, rather than simply awareness. They should provide depth when and where people are looking for it (driving them towards ‘pull’ media), and bright, shiny objects when their state of attention demands something interesting or entertaining to be pushed towards them.

This extract was originally published in volume 13 of WPP's Atticus Journal (2007)

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About the author

Damian Thompson

Mediaedge:cia London