Reach Vs Attention: Is there a silver bullet?

Dan Hojnik
By Dan Hojnik | 3 August 2022
Dan Hojnik.

The past decade has seen some strong contenders in teaching us how to market effectively. Yet despite Professor Byron Sharp’s solid conjecture around mass reach and the more recent focus on attentionas championed by Professor Karen Nelson-Field, marketers and ad industry denizens still can’t seem to fully adopt a successful strategy for marketing effectiveness.

Why? Because one single successful strategy doesn’t exist. Every client or campaign calls for bespoke thinking that takes the most appropriate parts from both the reach and attention schools of thought and combines them to generate the best results for the client.

Right now, we are in a golden age of evidence, with an abundance of research on marketing effectiveness available. We need to take advantage of this knowledge and use it to take marketers on a journey where they challenge what they think they know about effectiveness. Here are some pointers to help guide the way:

The original belief: reach

In 2010, Sharp’s How Brands Grow explained that at any given point in time, 95% of a potential audience is not actually in market to buy your product. Therefore, mental availability – or being front of mind – for the 5% of people who are in-market is essential to effectively grow any brand. This is achieved by maximising the reach of a brand’s advertising communications with consistency to maintain front-of-mind awareness and consideration.

It represented some legitimate, evidence-based theory to support what the ad industry had been saying for years: eyeballs equals effectiveness.

A false idol: personalisation

Other strategies for marketing effectively have come and gone in the decade or so since then, with many unable to challenge the strong hold that the reach theory has achieved.

For a while there seemed to be great potential in focussed targeting and, in particular, personalisation. But with the maturing of the digital era and the fragmentation of communications consumption, followed by GDPR in the EU and the UK, then the impending (albeit delayed) death of the third-party cookie as we know it, personalisation no longer seems a viable truth to which we can subscribe.

A new age belief: attention

Enter the attention economy, championed most successfully by Nelson-Field in the past few years. With the proliferation of digital channels and formats, we are now able to see where people are most likely to be actively or passively paying attention to the advertising communications they are being delivered. Delivering an attention CPM means we can refocus investment to gain more attention, which delivers higher mental availability, to then influence consumer behaviour.

So, to put it simply, we still have two front-running beliefs, reach and attention, who have extremist followers in the industry convinced their way is the right way.

The believers in reach claim that by focussing on attention, you are limiting reach of light category buyers. The believers in attention argue that delivering mass reach means you are not achieving active attention as effectively as you should, therefore you cannot influence purchase decision making.

However, when it comes to marketing effectiveness there is no “one-size fits all”, and we need to pick and choose the best parts from each to inform our approach. Here are some guiding principles to take these beliefs to practical application:

  1.        Reach more of the right people, consistently…

Proven time and time again, reaching the maximum amount of category buyers at any given time is essential, across all categories. Make sure that communications are ongoing to deliver brand salience and mental availability so that when your buyer is finally ready to buy, they know exactly what brands they need on their consideration set.

  1.        …with media that captures passive OR active attention.

Making sure communications can be actively or passively understood is what will ultimately get your brand on the consideration set and more likely to be purchased. Optimising for an attention CPM across all paid media with a balance of reach and volume will mean that communications can be more effective than if solely planned according to reach. More people will have the opportunity to act as a result of communications which reach but also capture attention.

  1.        Amplify with a compelling creative vehicle.

The IPA’s 2019 effectiveness paper, Lemon, demonstrates that advertising creative has become more and more left brain (rational and analytical) over time, and as such, we are delivering less emotionally engaging advertising and messaging. Given we understand that creative has the biggest effect on advertising profitability – up to a 10x multiplier on effectiveness – then reach and attention will be significantly less effective if the creative does not successfully resonate on an emotional level.

Clinging to one school of thought over another is a mistake. We must be open to planning long term yet be agile enough to evolve as consumers change and new research rolls in. Be careful about throwing all your eggs in one basket – be it reach, attention or something else – and instead think about what approach will resonate strongest with consumers. That must always be the number one priority.

Dan Hojnik is General Manager of Involved Media.


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