You only have 400 milliseconds to engage consumers with your ads – so make them good

Brands must now develop strategies that address the first second to leverage the critical point of consumer cognition, argues Rohit Dadwal of the Mobile Marketing Association before his session on the topic at the Mumbrella360 Asia conference in Singapore this November

The challenge of grabbing consumer attention is not new for the marketing industry. However, research suggesting that the average human attention span has been shrinking – and is now less than that of a goldfish – paints a rather worrying picture of the playing field modern marketers have to work with. 

Even if one questions the veracity of the research, there’s no denying the fact that consumer attention is more valuable, and more fragmented than ever, as it gets split across different types of content and platforms. On any given day, consumers are exposed to thousands of ads, within television shows, on mobile apps and even splashed across cabs and buses. 

Despite the heavy emphasis placed on engaging consumers, the industry struggles to define and understand a crucial aspect. That is the relationship between attention and the duration of exposure to an ad. How much time does an ad need to stay on-screen to trigger attention? What is the role of exposure time on effectiveness?

Using cognitive studies to demystify consumer attention

Some in the industry believe there is a linear relationship between time and attention. These marketers are consciously investing media dollars to extend the exposure time of their ads. As a result, the cost of time and attention continues to skyrocket with little concrete evidence to suggest that this prolonged exposure is triggering consumer attention. 

To help marketers address this issue, and make better decisions around their marketing investments and creative strategies, the Mobile Marketing Association – in collaboration with The Advertising Research Foundation and Neurons Inc. (an applied neuroscience research company) – conducted a neuroscience study to understand the cognitive process of advertising. Although neuroscience and advertising may not be words that you often hear together, using this technique to really understand the human brain’s reaction to advertising, and the cognitive processes behind it, can help push our knowledge boundaries.  

Some very interesting insights arose from this research:

  • Overall, ads in a mobile feed environment get attention faster and trigger stronger cognitio – when compared to desktop.
  • The human brain needs 400 milliseconds or less than ½ second, to engage with mobile advertising and trigger an imprint – either positive or negative.
  • Although all ads have the same likelihood of being seen, ‘well-known’ brands stimulate much faster cognitive and emotional processing – given the same time.
  • Weak ads are processed faster and create negative emotional responses in less than a second.

So, what does this all mean for brands and marketers?

Capitalising on the first second

The main implication of these findings is that brands have less time than they thought to win over consumers in today’s fast-paced advertising environment. By merely extending exposure time, marketers cannot possibly repair the damage that is done within the first second. Particularly in a mobile marketing environment. By the time the viewer blinks, their brain has already seen and processed the ad. 

As such, although brands have been trained to develop 15-30 second media strategies – or even 6-7 second strategies – they should now develop plans and strategies that address the first one second to leverage the critical point of consumer cognition.

Developing an effective ‘first-second strategy’

Based on the findings from the research, there are some critical components that need to be considered in developing an effective first second strategy. 

Brands need to win attention instead of paying for it. Controlling exposure time and pushing for longer times inflates CPMs and does not guarantee attention or value. For an ad to work, its creative must have four powers. 

Brands need to start by thinking about the stopping power of their ads. How does the ad get attention and start the cognitive process? The next step is evaluating transmission power, ensuring the ad and its components are going to be understood. Following this, brands need to consider the persuasion power of their ad, ensuring the ad triggers positive emotions and appeals to viewers. And finally, locking power; ensuring the message of the ad is memorable, to increase impact. 

With an increasing number of ads and content streams vying for consumers’ attention, building a strong creative and media strategy, grounded in scientific research, can really help marketers cut through the clutter.

Rohit Dadwal is the Asia-Pacific managing director at the Mobile Marketing Association – and he will be delivering a session at the Mumbrella360 Asia conference on ‘The ‘First Second’ – Mobile Ad Strategies’ in Singapore this November (5-7)


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