The Ethics of Attention And The Inevitable Future Of Digital Advertising

on Attention Economy

We are living in an attention economy, as attention has become one of our most valuable yet fragile resources.

In the last 15 years, the human attention span dropped a third to about 8 seconds (now a second shorter than a goldfish!). In a lot of ways, this is a response to the increase in stimuli we are bombarded by on a daily basis, from email and social media to smartphone notifications and of course: ads.

As marketers we are spending more and more on platforms that command consumers' time (i.e. social and mobile), but if our industry is to sustain itself we have a responsibility to think of the ethics of how we generate attention for our brands.

The Latin route of attention is tenere which means "to stretch" or "make tense" and this is a particularly apt description for the digital ad ecosystem.

Internet users, especially younger generations, are becoming more sensitive to the noise that advertising adds to their experience and the cost to their attention. This interruption is the primary reason (given to a recent YouGov/IAB UK poll) for the increasing use of ad blockers.

Chart - Why people block online ads - Internet Advertising Bureau

The Challenge

To maintain an ad-funded internet (where brands are still able to reach consumers through paid media), we need to start being respectful and considering the user experience rather than just the brand outcome. This means thinking about the the message and, dare I say, the content that is created, but also the nature of a user's interaction.

The content is obviously important. Unless brands create valuable, meaningful work, it will be ineffective or ignored. However, to borrow a metaphor from Dave Trott, the lorry (delivery mechanism) also matters!

It's time to start focusing beyond the number of interactions a campaign delivers (I won't start on whether I think clicks are a bad success metric) and consider how the message is being delivered.

Are we respecting the user and valuing their attention? Are we considering an ad's impact on the overwhelming majority of consumers who don't choose to interact?

What's Next?

The Acceptable Ads Manifesto, a set of guidelines designed by AdblockPlus (Disclosure: we've signed up), starts putting this delivery responsibility into more accountable form:

  • Acceptable Ads are not annoying.
  • Acceptable Ads do not disrupt or distort the page content we're trying to read.
  • Acceptable Ads are transparent with us about being an ad.
  • Acceptable Ads are effective without shouting at us.
  • Acceptable Ads are appropriate to the site that we are on.

At Sharethrough, we subscribe to and support the philosophy and pillars behind the manifesto.

This is a positive start, and the full manifesto is well worth reading (its change.org petition also just hit 10k supporters).

As an industry we need to put our money where our motivation is: Respecting consumers, adding to their browsing experience and being sensitive to their cognitive and digital bandwidth. If we choose this path it's not only best for the user, but it helps keep quality publishers in business, and ultimately means brands have a sustainable channel to earn consumers' attention...and isn't that the point in the first place?