News & Views

Interview / Dr Karen Nelson-Field

by Emily Hare
Dr Karen Nelson-Field is professor of media innovation at the University of Adelaide and executive director of the Centre of Amplified Intelligence. Prior to that, she researched the science of sharing at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, University of South Australia.

Nelson-Field dropped into Contagious’ London offices to speak to Emily Hare about her most recent research, looking at why attention is vital to marketers and how visibility and viewability lead to sales

Contagious: You’ve been using computer vision for your research around how content performs online and even developed your own 'gaze tracker' at the Centre of Amplified Intelligence. Can you explain why you've been working on this?

Nelson-Field: I started to get a personal interest in applying technology to amplify what researchers do. Basically, we started to collect our own data and it was fairly clunky tech. But we kept getting more and more interest from people wanting to understand how content works. I made a call that the boundaries of having a research centre in a university were too great for me to be able to explore different technologies, run fast, change things.

We’re called the Centre for Amplified Intelligence and it’s a true commercial entity. I’m still connected to a uni but they don’t have a stake in my business. There are four of us that have PhDs, mine is in media science. We’ve got consumer behaviour, modelling, brand quality and a team of coders and computer vision guys who build what we need to do the research. We’re also setting up a whole student section for interns to come in and work with us and learn what we do.

Please can you talk me through your most recent research?

I’m presenting the research that we’ve just done with all the major TV networks in Australia. The EGTA, which is the TV Association for Europe, brought me over to present the research. We built an app that goes onto someone’s phone, tablet, PC or TV. There were four devices. We intercepted the ad loads naturally in each person’s feed so they saw the ads that we wanted them to see. They didn’t know when we did that. We did it naturally in their own home, on the bus, in their own time. The app initiates the camera. We’ve really improved the gaze algorithm and this allows us to understand platform differences relative to the ability to cut through and for advertising to be remembered.

In a nutshell, we measured attention and sales across the platforms. We built a virtual store. Someone looks at YouTube, in its natural form. And then they go to the virtual store and we can see what they’ve bought. Similarly, Facebook and similarly TV. The creative was the same for each of the platforms and that’s really important because creative can make a difference.

A lot of the work you’ve done has been around attention, proving that the more attention a piece of advertising can achieve online, the higher the likelihood for a sale. Why do you see attention as so important?

You can trade cryptocurrency around attention now. There are attention tokens and gaze coins now. The information age has passed and the attention age is coming. Attention is going to be a commodity that you buy.

The attention economy was originally around the impact of inattention on the global economy. Now it’s working its way to a consumer perspective. How do you get someone’s attention to ensure that they make a purchase, buy the product?
I’m completely platform agnostic. What we found clearly is that TV had a much higher attention level than YouTube, than Facebook. The exciting part is we found a direct link between our measure of attention and the sales impact. It’s held constant across multiple sets of data.

There were two elements of visibility that we looked at. Coverage is proportion of the screen that the ad covered. And then pixels are the proportion of an ad that was on the screen. Attention is directly related to this.

Marketers have started to question viewability standards – what advice do you have for them?

Why is the viewability standard 50% and two seconds on screen? We could see a direct link between how much of the ad you saw and its scale to how much you bought because if you can’t see an ad, how can you buy from it?

Attention and sales, sales and viewability, viewability and attention, they’re all completely linked.

Is there a good balance if you’re thinking about planning your media mix?

It’s not really something that we’ve looked at. We’ve got a baseline for each of the platforms and each of the devices now, next is understanding the combination of two, whether there’s an increase in impact. For example, if you watch TV first and then see it on Facebook or YouTube is there a synergy effect?

That’s our next six months actually. I think that will add some extra value. The cost piece is also really interesting, because a Facebook ad, I’m told, is cheaper than a TV ad. Let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, that a TV ad is $1,000 and a Facebook ad is $500 - so it’s 50% of the rate. But it’s more about the missed opportunity in brand growth and sales that’s the real cost. Not the reduction in the ad cost. I think there’s a piece of work to be done around the cost benefit and the relative value that the different levels that pixels deliver.

There’s always an opportunity cost.

That’s exactly right and people don’t think that way. They think about it in media buying terms and in my opinion, that’s the wrong way to think about it. Save yourself $20,000 on an ad, fine. But how much money have you lost because your sales impact is halved?

You found that Facebook ads get a lot of peripheral attention (see above). Are you seeing any benefits from that kind of attention, compared to active?

We’re doing some deeper work at the moment on understanding the weighting of peripheral versus active. But the reality is, the active attention on Facebook is so bad that we expected the sales to be a lot worse. They were worse than TV but slightly higher than YouTube. So, this really high passive viewing has definitely improved the sales opportunity. But it definitely doesn’t impact quite the way true active attention does: looking at the ad itself.

Why does attention vary so much?

It’s the visibility. The lower the visibility, the more the attention goes down. The higher the visibility, the more the attention goes up. With Facebook in particular, there’s lots of clutter around ads.

Think about it this way, if your ad is 50% on the screen, half the time your brand is not even on the screen. So, how can you possibly attribute that half ad to the right brand? And marketers often don't optimise to allow for scrolling direction, because it’s too expensive to optimise for every single platform.

What are the biggest and most damaging misconceptions that you see marketers holding?

Not all reach is equal. For example, if one person sees an ad and it’s 100% viewable and 100% coverage, it’s worth much more than if one person sees it and it’s just 50% of the screen. Or 10% coverage. Reaching more people with lower visibility is a false economy.