The cost of viewer attention has increased significantly in the past 20 years. Experts weigh in on how to create attention-grabbing and attention-keeping ads.
It isn’t just your imagination: shorter ads—six seconds in most cases—are more popular than ever. “A six-second bumper appears in pretty much all briefs that we get,” says Dean Challis, head of communications strategy at global ad agency Droga5. These short ads—sixes, he calls them—started appearing in most Droga5 creative briefs in the past two years.
Although six-second ads have become commonplace online, the shorter-ad trend is 25 years in the making, according to Thales Teixeira, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. In the 1980s, TV commercials were anywhere from 60- to 90-seconds long, and the content was mostly informative. In the 1990s, 30-second ads—more dynamic and entertaining—became the norm, before 15-second ads became more common in the 2000s.
“When you go online, history repeats itself,” Teixeira says. Advertisers cut ads to five seconds, he says, but most soon realized that shorter ads can’t simply be pulled from longer spots—there must be something that sets short ads apart. “Fast-forward to today, what we see are ads that are made for the internet, not made for TV and then repurposed,” Teixeira says.
Short ads aren’t likely to flame out as a trend. According to Teixeira’s research, the cost of consumer attention has increased by seven to nine times in the past two decades. He believes the increase is due to an abundance and variety of content online. People have an endless number of options for what to watch; why would they choose an ad?
This is where unskippable six-second ads become essential; these ads capture anywhere from 8% to 11% more attention per second than longer ads, according to a 2018 study by the Advertising Research Foundation and TVision Insights. Advertisers have caught on: A 2018 study by Adweek and GumGum surveyed 305 brand marketers and agencies to find that 81% believe unskippable six-second pre-roll ads are effective.
Build a Ladder of Engagement
These days, few people get information on products from watching ads, Teixeira says. Brands need to find ways to make ads more entertaining to capture viewer attention. To create a series of entertaining ads, Teixeira suggests building a “ladder of engagement.”
The ladder of engagement is akin to winning the attention of a new friend, Teixeira says. Just as you’d spend a few minutes chatting before inviting them to coffee, then to dinner on another evening, a brand builds its ladder of engagement step by step. Brands can start with a five-second ad, then a 15-second ad, then 30 seconds, then try to get consumers to visit their website.
“The height of the first step has to be very, very small,” he says. “Unless you’re Apple, you can’t expect that any consumer will sit through more than five seconds without knowing your brand. … The idea is that people will get little chunks of information, as opposed to getting all the information in one longer ad because people just skip through that.”
A methodical, entertaining reveal also avoids what Teixeira calls an “aversion to persuasion”; he says that many viewers stop paying attention when an ad is informative. If you tell a story instead of trying to persuade, Teixeira says that viewers are more likely to keep watching. “One of the first jobs of the ad is to remove this barrier to be persuaded,” he says.
To do so, Teixeira says brands should include relatable characters and use more engaging than informative content. Once viewers are entertained by the ads, he says they won’t automatically click away once they see the brand’s logo and realize that they’re watching an ad. Insurance companies—think the Geico Caveman or Allstate’s Mayhem series—have been striking this balance for years, Teixeira says.
Advertisers can know if the ladder of engagement is working by keeping track of how many people watch the ad until the end, Teixeira says. Longer ads that try to convey too much information tend to get skipped, he says, but modern advertisers must realize that buying an ad isn’t buying attention—it’s buying an opportunity to communicate.
“The advertiser’s first role is not to throw away the potential attention that they bought,” he says. “Don’t screw up and don’t lose what you’ve already paid for.”
A big piece of moving up the ladder of engagement is creating emotion, Teixeira says. In a 2018 Journal of Marketing paper, “Video Content Marketing: The Making of Clips,” Teixeira and co-authors say that giving Netflix viewers a sample of the emotions they’ll feel when they watch a show or movie was effective. “We used facial expression analysis to really understand what [expressions] are most emotional and just put those scenes in the movie trailer,” he says. “In some cases, you can actually get people to feel the intensity of emotion in a short period of time. Not as intense as a beautiful movie, but it goes pretty far.”
Teixeira warns against pushing nonstop emotions in ads. Think about a high-pitch beep that never ends, he says—it’s annoying, but people get used to it and it blends into the background. “What people never, ever get used to is that periodical beep-beep-beep,” he says. “Those car alarms will drive you nuts for five minutes, five hours or five days. So that’s what you need to do with the emotions in ads.”
Keep Brand Awareness
Challis—whose role at Droga5 is to ensure media is considered at the start of the creative process—says that sixes will never replace longer ads, but they now play a role in brand awareness for nearly every brand in Droga5’s roster. Instead of a ladder of engagement, Challis believes short ads are a way to remind viewers of the campaign’s core message. Sixes can also be used to improve specific parts of the customer journey, he says.
“In most instances, they will work within a system with a longer-form asset—be that a longer-form video or whatever will form the base of the campaign messaging,” he says. “Then sixes can be used to target specific audiences. … Whether you want to target people on their coffee break or other points [of the day], you can do that quite smartly and cost effectively in that format.”
In 2018, Droga5 created a series of short ads to go along with the Under Armour “Will Finds a Way” campaign. The initial ad was about 75 seconds long and featured a voiceover from actor Dwayne Johnson on how different young athletes chose to train. The accompanying sixes went into more depth on the stories of the young athletes.
“When [a six is] working off of a main campaign, you use it to remind people of what the main campaign was and you can retarget people who have been exposed to the initial message,” Challis says. “You know you’re not getting wastage.”
To ensure ads aren’t wasted, Challis says Droga5 looks at the typical reach and frequency numbers, but ideally wants to build a multivariate model that shows how the ads lead to business success. What success is will always depend on what the campaign set out to achieve—if the campaign for a consumer product rolled out over time, Challis says they’d look at how the sixes affected site visits.
By knowing sixes will follow the campaign’s centerpiece, Challis says the creatives at Droga5 can more easily plan shoots and production. Instead of starting a shoot with plans to merely get what they need for a 30-second ad, they can plan for what they’ll need in the sixes and build them out during production. Challis says this helps them plan for how the messages will be sequenced and allows the story to continue after the main ad runs, akin to having a ladder of engagement after the campaign’s centerpiece.
“Then we can also look at the context in which it appears,” he says. “If you’re looking at it on YouTube, for instance, you target certain types of content … that’s going to follow it. If you’ve got sports content or comedy afterward, how do you make that six seconds relate to the thing you’re about to see?”
Dos and Don’ts of Creating Short Ads
DON’T simply cut down a 30-second ad. “It just doesn’t work,” Challis says. “You can’t think about multiple scenes. Think a one-scene story or even message.”
DO think about how you can grab attention. Most creatives are still thinking about how they can create content that will get people to buy their products, Teixeira says. Instead, they should think about how they can hold people’s attention.
DON’T forget to brand.Brands must entertain in short ads, Teixeira says, but they can’t forget to inform. “You can’t just entertain for free,” he says of the ladder of engagement process. “You’re still an advertiser. You have to ease into the pitch.”
DO have clarity on the role of the short ad. “From a design standpoint, having clarity on what the take out of the ad is and how it fits into the broader work [is important],” Challis says. “Because with a six-second hit, you don’t have a huge amount of time to take away a message.”