Audience’s ‘fractured attention span’ a big challenge for advertisers today

Tech advances in advertising — such as augmented reality bar codes on magazines and customized online ads — make the past seem quaint by comparison.

But panelists kicking off Toronto’s Advertising Week did reminisce about the past — the fabled Wild West and the beginnings of Madison Avenue’s advertising industry in the 1920s.

Flash forward to today, when communications technologies are developing so rapidly, there are few surefire advertising techniques guaranteed to persuade an audience.

Attempts to do so are usually hit and miss.

Modes of online communication can be powerful because of their immediacy, says Terry O’Reilly, author of The Age of Persuasion and host of the CBC Radio program of the same name. But the drawback is increasingly less time spent with the consumer.

“True persuasion takes time,” he says. It’s the amount of time you spend with a customer that will dictate whether she likes your offering or puts it on her shopping list.

Ads that shrink format to adapt to online requirements may not have the same impact as traditional ads, he adds. It was one of the challenges he discussed with a panel of advertising industry creative professionals.

Other obstacles to online advertising success include the limited and crowded ad real estate you have to work with, says Nick Barbuto, the vice-president of digital solutions at Cossette, a Quebec-based agency. It’s hard to package good creative in small spaces.

“Larger formats can give creative a better canvas to work on,” he says.

But short messages and five-second ads might be necessary when competing for attention spans these days, says Karen Howe, creative director at Due North Communications, a mid-sized marketing communications firm based in Toronto.

When your target audience is multi-tasking, she says, you might not have much opportunity to communicate your point.

“There are a million touch points with consumers now. We’ve created the ADD generation — they have such fractured attention spans.”

But the realtime nature of a medium like Twitter can have its advantages too, panelists say. There are times when reaching a large audience right away can be very effective. O’Reilly talked of how he did this during his recent book tour.

Between media interviews, he would stop by a city’s local bookstore to sign copies for a short period of time. To advertise that he would be there to do this, he used with Twitter account – @AgeOfPersuasion. Within 10 minutes of sharing the news, people would start showing up at the book store.

“I don’t know where else I could have gone to get that instantaneous response,” he says.

The real-time nature of such services also allow companies experimenting with online media a margin of error, says Dre Labre, creative director at Tribal DDB, a network of interactive ad agencies with Canadian offices in Vancouver and Toronto.

The key thing to do is to act quickly to respond to customer feedback, Labre sais.

“It doesn’t matter what was said yesterday, it only matters what is said right now. There’s so much happening out there, it’s a mistake to think a slip up will have a big consequence.”

Despite often being thought of as an avenue for niche marketing and audience engagement, the Internet can bring in a truly mass audience, O’Reilly says. Dove’s online video “Evolution” attracted five million hits in just 10 days. (It now has moer than 10 million views on YouTube.)

That video was accomplished because advertisers are allowed to experiment more with new online forms, says Janet Kestin, co-chief creative officer at Ogilvy. Every medium allows for an appropriate message to be made for it.

“The handcuffs were taken off,” she said on the panel. “Consumers are changing us more than we are changing them.”

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