Lumen research shows consumers are paying more attention to print ads that appear next to content about the Covid-19 outbreak.

Words relating to the Covid-19 pandemic have fast risen up brands’ keyword blacklists, yet there is evidence to suggest they should actually be actively placing ads next to coronavirus-related content.

It will come as no surprise that people are paying more attention to the news in the current climate, with national and regional publishers seeing record numbers of digital readers. But people are also paying significantly more attention to the advertising around it.

According to eye-tracking specialists Lumen, print advertising is currently generating 21% more attention than the norm for the medium. Some 88% of press ads run during the week of 18 to 25 March were viewed compared with an average view rate of 75%. Two-thirds (66%) of viewable digital ads were noticed compared with an average of 55% for desktop digital tests conducted in the past six months.

“It’s not that you should be doing ads and avoiding coronavirus, it’s the other way round,” says Lumen’s managing director, Mike Follett.

“There is this general belief that you don’t want to have your ads next to any form of controversial content. Brands become tremendously worried about the juxtaposition of those, and this is just another thing they want to block. The blacklists in this sense should be reversed. What [brands] should be doing is not blocking that stuff but searching it out.”

It appears, however, that brands are in fact doing the opposite of this. Newsworks, the body representing UK newspaper publishers, estimates that digital brand safety measures around the keyword ‘coronavirus’ are going to cost the industry £50m in lost advertising revenue in the next three months.

Advertising attention on the up

Dwell time – the amount of time spent actually looking at the ads – has also remained relatively strong. The average dwell time with digital ads in tests run last month was 1.5 seconds, slightly down from the Lumen average of 1.9 seconds. Dwell time with print advertising, meanwhile, increased slightly from 2.1 seconds to 2.2 seconds.

These two metrics can be combined into a single number that estimates the total aggregate attention an ad will receive per 1,000 impressions, known as ‘attentive seconds per 1000 impressions’. This reveals a slight dip in aggregate attention to digital advertising, but a dramatic increase in attention to print advertising.

Lumen estimates advertisers and media agencies could expect to generate around 1,600 second of attention per 1,000 print impressions usually. In the test period, 1,000 newspaper impressions would generate an average of 1,936 attentive seconds, an increase of 21%.

The discrepancy between the performance of print and digital advertising can, in part, be traced to the impact of interest in coronavirus. Some 60% of the press ads tested were sited next to news stories about coronavirus, while only 23% of the digital ads tested in the period were sited next to coronavirus-related content online.

What is clear, however, is that the analysis of the attention patterns within newspapers shows that the ads that appeared closest to coronavirus content outperformed ads next to other subjects.

“People are still engaging with advertising and even more than ever, so you’re going to get more bang for your buck from pretty much any form of advertising at the moment,” Follett explains.

“People look at ads in proportion to how much they engage with the editorial. The more people engage with the articles or social content, the more they engage with the ads. People are engaging more with coronavirus-related content than anything else and therefore they are engaging more with the ads around that.”

While the research can’t decipher whether the engagement is positive or negative, a recent investigation into the impact of ‘hard news’ on advertising responses suggests hard news has no negative impact on advertising content, responses to ads or brands.

According to the Newsworks and Neuro-Insight study, the average ad dwell time is 1.4 times higher in a hard news environment (45 seconds versus 32 seconds).

While the average levels of response to ads in hard and soft news environments are similar, the pattern of response shows more and stronger peaks for ads in a hard news environment, indicating the brain is more actively engaged and there is more likelihood of key messages being encoded into memory.

Ads in both hard and soft news environments were found to deliver strong engagement (personal relevance), emotional intensity and, importantly, elicit strong levels of memory encoding.

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