The Key to Consumer Attention Is Relevance

Consumers today have infinite options when it comes to premium content, which presents a unique challenge for brands and advertisers: attention is finite, and it’s far too easy for consumers to tune out a brand’s message if it isn’t relevant to them or their interests.Advertising practitioners have acknowledged this vexing issue. In an Advertiser Perceptions/Xandr survey, nearly half of industry respondents ranked “changes in consumer media habits” as the top challenge facing the industry. The study surveyed 500 leading brand and marketing professionals with more than $1 million in TV advertising and digital video spend, followed by in-depth interviews with key decision makers across different advertising verticals.

To determine how the advertising industry can adapt to the changing media environment and consumers’ fragmented attention, Xandr and Insight Strategy Group set out to understand consumers’ media consumption habits as well as their sentiments on and engagement with advertising. They collected survey data from 3,022 consumers nationwide in addition to a 16-person sample that logged their actions digitally in “attention diaries.” Xandr also conducted a series of face-to-face interviews with participants in urban and rural areas across a range of demographics.

The consumer findings proved that content is an integral part of people’s lives, with 68 percent of people reporting that they usually spend most of their free time engaging with content. Furthermore, there were high levels of agreement around the drivers of content consumption: 82 percent seek it out because of an emotional connection, 76 percent said content enriches and enhances their lives, and 72 percent said their day wouldn’t be complete without it.

Xandr’s research sought to explore the dynamic between a constant dilemma consumers face — having finite time, but unlimited options, interests, and pursuits. With daily responsibilities and obligations to meet beyond the content they consume, consumers’ attention is fragmented and they must multitask to meet the increased demands on their time.

The Importance of Relevance

Relevance is a crucial factor in consumer engagement, according to Xandr’s research. More than half of the consumers surveyed said that when ads are not relevant to them, they don’t pay attention, and two-thirds of consumers wish advertisements were more relevant to them and their lifestyle.

While a lack of relevance can diminish an advertisement’s impact, consumers are generally receptive to messages that are significant to them. Xandr found no inherent bias against advertising in and of itself among consumers: 82 percent expressed a clear understanding that ads need to exist, and 64 percent say they believe advertising enables independent voices to be heard on the internet.

The Science of Relevance

Xandr identified three primary criteria for an ad to be relevant: it must meet a consumer need, meet a moment in time, and evoke an emotion.

1. Meet a consumer need.

Advertising meets a need when it aligns with the consumer’s interests and provides information that is new and compelling. Seventy-two percent of the consumers surveyed said they like discovering new products through ads, 76 percent like when ads tell them something relevant that they didn’t know, and 79 percent said it’s a great feeling when a brand helps them find a product they didn’t know they wanted.

The key for advertisers is knowing whether or not something is, in fact, new to the consumer. Many algorithms tend to rely on past behaviors as predictors of future purchases. But consumers are less interested in things they have already seen or bought. This approach is reactive rather than proactive, which can take a toll on people’s perception of an ad.

2. Meet a moment in time.

Consumers prefer different types of content and advertising experiences at different points throughout the day — and technology enables them to consume the media they want, when they want it. Further, content and advertising must work together to be relevant to consumers as their media preferences shift from one hour to the next: 70 percent of those surveyed in the study said they like when an ad fits in with what they are watching, listening to, and reading.

While individual schedules and preferences vary, Xandr’s research identified trends about what kinds of content consumers prefer at different times of day, and which kinds of ads work most effectively with that content. For example, in the morning, people want to find out what’s going on in the world and get energized. By contrast, evening is all about unwinding and escaping the stresses of the day, often by connecting with others through content. Ads that are visually stimulating will engage them at this time.

3. Evoke an emotion.

Emotions can be tapped into in various ways, and their persuasive power cannot be overstated. Seventy-one percent of consumers, for instance, said they like when ads make them feel something, and 70 percent said they like when advertising goes beyond selling a product.

By striking an emotional chord with the consumer, ads can instill the sense that the company behind them has integrity, credibility, and authenticity. If an ad gives consumers the right feeling about the advertiser, they are far more likely to want to align themselves with it by buying a product or service from that brand. However, customer relationships cannot be built only on a general sense of authenticity alone. The ad must be relevant to the individual consumer and perceived as authentic to them personally.

The Positive Impact of Advertising

Another factor contributing to the challenge facing advertisers is a new, higher set of standards. Advertising has evolved beyond unsophisticated pop-ups, and in the process, consumers have grown accustomed to recommendation engines. Technology has primed people to expect advertising that is curated for them.

Amid such heightened expectations, relevance is the currency of engagement. Ads need to offer the consumer a relevant recommendation, teach, illuminate, or introduce something they were unaware of that may improve their daily life; in short, they should be intuitive and deliver an elevated advertising experience.

When ads are relevant, consumers actually enjoy them. Consider that 91 percent of the consumers Xandr surveyed said they appreciate brands that do anything to make their day easier. Another 77 percent said that the best brands improve their lives in ways they didn’t know they could.

Knowing that advertising can have a positive impact, Xandr asked consumers to estimate the percentage of ads they’ve seen anywhere in their lifetime that had a positive impact on them personally. On average, consumers had an extremely positive, memorable, life-altering, or highly impactful experience with 22 percent of the advertisements they were exposed to in their lifetime. Those consumers who had a positive experience with an ad were more likely to share on social media (17 percent), investigate the brand further (35 percent), make recommendations to friends and family (29 percent), and ultimately make purchases (27 percent).

The Solution

Advertisers, like consumers, want better, more meaningful advertising experiences. Xandr’s research showed that only 19 percent of marketers and agencies are extremely satisfied with the implementation and execution of their media strategy. Most see the kind of pivot that needs to take place; of those surveyed, 65 percent believe the fragmented media landscape requires a new marketing structure that places more focus on the audience than the content.

The marketers surveyed were consistent in their view on the path forward. Fifty-six percent of agencies and marketers believe more advanced targeting solutions will drive optimal campaign delivery; 76 percent believe that media providers/platforms that offer advanced targeting techniques, delivering the right ad to the right consumer, are key in creating a better ad experience for users; and 71 percent believe that using advanced targeting techniques would improve advertising ROAS/ROI.

Data Privacy: Balancing Interests

As advertisers look to improve consumer experiences, the issue of data privacy remains. Nearly every consumer Xandr interviewed voiced concerns about seeing an ad for something they had purchased moments ago, or already decided they didn’t want to buy.

Despite these concerns, consumers do welcome the right messages. Relevance, in the right measure, can help overcome data concerns. The research showed that data concerns are largely outweighed by consumers’ interest in advertising that is relevant to them and shows them something new. More than half (53 percent) of consumers said they are okay with companies using their digital footprint in exchange for services or utility. Ultimately, it is a balancing act.

Dramatic changes in media consumption habits, brought about by the ubiquity of content and the fragmentation of consumers’ attention, have created an unprecedented challenge for advertisers. But they also present tremendous opportunity. The challenge of breaking through and capturing the attention of consumers who have finite time but limitless options has pushed the industry to the edge of a major shift — one that consumers are ready for and willing to embrace.

The industry recognizes that change is inevitable and that data and technology can solve many of the fundamental problems with the current state of advertising.

The key is relevance: precisely targeted messages that are personally relevant — and thoughtful — to the consumer and that reduce the number of ads that reach people who instinctively tune them out. Relevance can create elevated, impactful advertising experiences, and in doing so, help to overcome the industry’s looming challenge.

Jill Siegel is the director of research at Xandr. You can reach her at

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