The theme of the conference was “The age of engagement, or the age of low-attention?” It’s an interesting theme because engagement and low-attention are two of the big shiny industry concepts right now, and on their face are about opposite things. The low-attention processing model tells us that contrary to the way most people think advertising works, it can still be very effective without people consciously paying attention to it or remembering they’ve seen it, especially in the case of stuff with emotive content. But engagement is about trying to make communications that are so interesting that people choose pay attention to them.
Of course, they’re both big,
important theories and I’m horribly oversimplifying. But as far as I can tell it comes down to this: everyone agrees that
today people face more clutter, more choices, and more control over what they watch/read/browse/do than ever. Where people differ is on what
the implications are. We can assume people
will never again pay conscious attention to advertising messages and design
messages to be processed in the background at low-attention levels, or we can
try to make communications more engaging so people will choose to spend time
So, good theme, but I think the conference organizers got it a bit wrong because as the theme suggests, they tried to set up the day as an either/or proposition. The conference chair asked the audience several times over the day which camp we were all in, were we being persuaded one way or the other. But why do they have to be diametrically opposed choices? I think it’s a false dichotomy. They both look like valid models to me, and I can think of situations where each is right to use. It just depends on your objectives. (This is one of my favorite planner-isms, by the way. It can get you out of any debate. But it does tend to be true.)
And even on the same brand at the same time,
surely they can
co-exist. Some communications in a campaign could be designed
to work in the background, constantly reinforcing brand associations
you even realizing it, while other communications are designed to
reward attention and aim for social currency. Isn’t this what the big
beer companies like Budweiser do already? Half of their advertising is
classic warm fuzzy imagery
stuff like pour shots, icy bottles, dripping glasses, and Clydesdales, while the other
half are funny ads with huge production values, of which enough are made that some occasionally become hits and conversation
pieces. Granted, this requires big enough budgets to have lots of different
in market all the time. But anyway, the point is surely low-attention and engagement are not
One big difference between low-attention and engagement certainly emerged over the course of the day: one is well defined, and the other isn’t. Low-attention is a topic everyone is clear on, and in case anyone wasn’t, Robert Heath, the father of Low-attention - he coined the phrase - was the first speaker and he was quite persuasive making that case again. He’s a very smart man, and there’s a lot of evidence to support this idea, both from market research (he introduced some new research he's done on 140 famous ads) and from brain science. This idea is generally accepted now, even though we’re still wrestling with its implications. Why do we do research using high-attention processing (forced exposure) when at home people mostly watch ads (and often TV in general) with low-attention? Why do we care so much if people can recall the message, or if they say they’ve been persuaded by an ad? Why do we treat details like music and typefaces and casting as "executional" instead of strategic? How do we measure unconscious emotional responses?
But the specificity and depth of that idea was contrasted with the fact that every speaker defined engagement in a different way, sometimes so much that they were talking about completely different things. A few of the later speakers commented on this, but it never really got resolved. Not that this was really the forum to resolve anything. But it made me realize how much engagement is a buzzword that is still very ill-defined. And as is the case with ill-defined things, everybody keeps using it to help them make whatever point they were already making.
So depending on the speaker, engagement was...
- a trick advertisers pull by putting something amusing or shocking in a TV ad to get you to pay attention before introducing the brand message
- any non-mass marketing
- not interactivity
- "taking your message to the consumer"
- communication that uses multiple touchpoints
- active participation in, rather than passive consumption of communication
Not entirely conducive to moving the debate forward. At least most people seemed to admit that engagement was something worth pursuing and understanding better, but even that wasn’t universally accepted: Robert Heath began the day by making a very bold claim that he doesn’t believe in engagement at all: “advertising is something that consumers don’t go out to find.” This is so obviously mistaken that I’m surprised someone that intelligent would say it. Millions of people download ads from YouTube or Google Video or brands’ own websites and email them around to their friends. People with PVRs will skip most ads but will actually stop and rewind to watch the occasional one. And there's the Superbowl. Sure it’s true that most days most ads are awful, and that people do want to avoid most ads, but obviously some brands and agencies have figured out a way to create value which makes their stuff worth watching. We should be learning something from those examples, not writing them off because the rest suck.
Well, that turned into more of a longish rant than I was expecting. I’ll post a summary of the presenters tomorrow.