Why people pay more attention to an ad on TV than they do to an ad on YouTube or Facebook

If you're an advertiser you are probably struggling with the question of which form of video advertising is most effective at building sales – television, Facebook or YouTube?

I recently had the pleasure of being on a speaking programme that included professor Karen Nelson-Field of the University of Adelaide and founder of Media Intelligence Co. Nelson-Field presented the results of a year-long study her firm had conducted to determine the answer to the question of which of these media types delivers better sales results.

First some caveats:

I am always wary of research funded by an interested party. Nelson-Field’s research was paid for by a TV trade association. Nonetheless, after learning how the research was conducted I have a high level of confidence that it is valid.

Next, the research does not try to measure the impact of ‘creativity’ on sales. It solely measured the delivery system, not what was being delivered. This is wise as it does not confuse the issue by studying more than one variable at a time.

While no research methodology can perfectly reproduce real-world conditions, the methodology they employed was as close to real-world as you’re likely to see. They used some very sophisticated technology to study how people watched, or didn’t watch, ads. For the purposes of brevity I’m going to summarise some of their findings, but if you’d like the details you can watch her entire presentation here.

The overriding conclusion of the study was that there is a clear and direct causal relationship between attention paid to advertising and sales. In other words, the more someone pays attention to your ad, the more likely it is to cause an increase in sales. This should be surprising to absolutely no one. This graph demonstrates the relationship.

What is interesting is that the study found that people pay more attention to an ad on TV than they do to the same ad on YouTube or Facebook.

In the table above, ‘active’ viewing means exactly what it  sounds like – paying direct attention to an ad. Television has a much higher rate of active viewing (about twice that of YouTube and about 15 times that of Facebook.) This completely invalidates the spurious claim that people ‘tune out’ TV ads or that a ‘second screen’ has a strongly negative effect on the attention paid to TV spots.

‘Passive’ viewing is defined as not paying direct attention to an ad, but having it peripherally visible. You’ll notice that Facebook has a very high rate of passive viewing. This means that people’s attention is often not fixed on the ad itself, but on things around the ad. While passive viewing does have value (as we’ll see in a later chart) it is not nearly as powerful as active viewing.

‘Non-viewing’ is defined as neither looking at an ad nor having your eyes focused near the field of vision in which the ad is appearing.

The study also measured three factors that contribute to attention:

  • Time: The amount of time spent looking at an ad
  • Pixels: The amount of an ad that is viewable on the screen
  • Coverage: The amount of space an ad occupies on the screen

The distinction between pixels and coverage is an important one so I’ve made this little diagram to illustrate the difference.

Right now, the standard for measuring online video views only considers two of the three factors – time and pixels. An online video view is considered ‘chargeable’ to an advertiser when 50 per cent of the pixels are viewable for two continuous seconds.

One of the important findings of the study is that ‘coverage’ (the amount of the screen that the ad covers) is a key component of effectiveness. This is currently not considered a factor when an advertiser is charged for an online view. The study found that It is more important than either time or pixels.

In fact, coverage is the primary driver of attention and sales, accounting for about 70 per cent of the effect. As the chart above demonstrates, the primary reason TV has more active viewing and consequently more attention, and more sales value, is that it covers 100 per cent of the screen while the same spot on YouTube covers about 30 per cent and on Facebook about 10 per cent.

The final table below shows that the sales influence of a spot on TV is far above the influence of the same spot on either YouTube or Facebook.

In the table above, a sales effect of 100 should be considered a baseline index. Televion’s index of 144 means its net positive sales effect is about 2 1/2 to 3 times that of YouTube (at 116) and Facebook (at 118.)

The combination of an ad’s time, pixels and coverage Nelson-Field calls ‘visibility’. It should be obvious that ads with higher visibility would be more effective. But in an irrational advertising environment in which anything online or ‘digital’ has been imbued with magical properties, it is significant that someone has made a conclusive effort to check the science.

Bob Hoffman has been the CEO of two independent agencies and is the author of the Ad Contrarian blog


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