Note to Mary Meeker: time spent with a medium does NOT equal time spent with advertising on that medium

Mary Meeker’s latest exhaustive and exhausting Internet Trends report is out. As ever, it is packed with interesting and important information. As ever, one slide stands out as egregiously simplistic: the time spent with media vs the ad spend on that media.

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This year, the story is one of market sanity: people in the US spend roughly 18% of their media time on desktops and 33% of it on mobile phones, and hey, guess what? Advertisers spend roughly 18% of the budgets on desktop ads, and 33% mobile advertising. This is compared 2010, when time spent/media spend was seriously out of kilter. Looks like someone has been listening to Mary Meeker.

(And let’s be honest, folks, someone HAS been listening to Mary Meeker. Her insights and her report have genuinely moved the market over the last few years, and she has done a brilliant job of highlighting interesting opportunities).

But according to this analysis, print spend still looks overweight, and where is Cinema and OOH? You can bet that, compared to time spent with the media, investment is over egged.

Is the market really so irrational? Why do brands keep on ploughing money into these media even if people aren’t spending lots of time there?

This is because not all ads are created equal. People are very good at avoiding advertising, and ads on some media are simply easier to ignore than ads on other media. People might spend a lot of time on desktops, but advertising on desktops is much easier to ignore than ads on mobile, or TV. People might not read newspapers as much as they used to, but when they do, they notice the ads far more frequently, and spend much more time with them, than they do with digital media.

Over the last 6 years, we at Lumen Research have conducted hundreds of eye tracking projects to understand the reality of attention to advertising across media. For the last 3 years, we’ve been running the world’s first passive eye tracking panel: hundreds of consumers are paid to install a small eye tracking camera onto their home laptop computers which tracks everything they notice – and crucially, everything they ignore – when they go on line.

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When you look at our data in aggregate, you notice an interesting and important fact: just because you can see an ad does not mean that you will see it. Even ‘viewable’ advertising isn’t always ‘viewed’. The ‘attention gap’ between viewable and viewed advertising varies wildly between media. Only 20% of viewable desktop display ads actually get viewed. Mobile ads are far harder to ignore: about 60% of them are actually seen. But Print and OOH ads are far more visible: between 70% and 80% of viewable print and OOH ads actually get noticed. Pre-roll advertising on desktop is unique in that almost everyone who can see it, does see it. Our friends at TVision have some interesting complementary data on this subject when it comes to TV advertising.

Secondly, the eyes-on dwell time with all forms of advertising are much shorter than you might imagine. The average time that people actually spend looking at a desktop display ad is 1.3 seconds; with a mobile ad, it’s about 1.5 seconds; 1.7 for a poster; 2.1 for the average print ad; and a whopping 9 seconds with a pre-roll ad on desktop. Already, you can see that the effective reach and the effective dwell time with ads in different media is radically different.

Thirdly, you can see that the dwell time averages are not based on a normal distribution, but are skewed to one end: most people just glance at most ads, though once in a while an ad will really capture your attention and you’ll spent 3-4 seconds with it. This happens far more frequently with print and posters than it does with digital and mobile.

We can begin to understand that media buyers might not be mad after all. Advertisers ‘over invest’ in print (and out-of-home) because people ‘over invest’ their time in advertising on these media. In fact, it may be that the true learning to be taken from Ms Meeker’s charts is not that the market has reached equilibrium in digital ad spend, but that we are spending too much on digital channels given the relative ‘weakness’ of ads on these media.

If you were to buy 1000 viewable impressions across different media, and then take into account how likely it is that each ad gets noticed at all, and then how long it is likely to be actually looked at, how many minutes of actual attention to advertising would each medium produce? Our analysis suggests that you would get 2.5 minutes of attention from 1000 desktop display ads. You’d get twice that for mobile ads, which are that much harder to ignore. But you would get 10 times that for 1000 print ads. And you would get 50 times that investing in desktop pre-roll.

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Advertisers don’t care if people could see their ads. They care that people did see their ads. Some media are just better than others at converting the potential for attention into actual eyeballs on ads. This is what drives business results, and this is what should be driving investment levels. Perhaps there’s method in this market madness after all?