Kenan Buhic

A Master Thesis: Unpacking the Definition of ‘Attention as a Metric’

Kenan Buhić, author and IT project manager at Arkwright Digital GmbH 
Kenan Buhić, IT project manager at Arkwright Digital GmbH, studied attention metrics at WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, which he turned into his thesis, Attention as a Metric.  He shared what he learned, what surprised him about the lack of standardization of attention metrics, and his advice for others learning about this emerging field.



What led you to attention as the subject for your thesis? 

The way it works is that you choose which kind of chair you want to write for, and so I wanted to write for the chair of digital marketing.  When I applied, I had no idea that I would write about attention as a metric because, quite frankly, we had never covered it in class. It was something completely new to me, but it was super relevant.  

The paper was essentially me coming in the cold, not having any exposure to it and trying to figure out my way around it and manoeuvring around the landscape of literature, reviews, and other material on that topic.   


      I looked at attention from a broader lens by looking at psychology and neuroscience research papers ...before returning to marketing journals  


And you obviously dove headfirst into it. And you've talked to a lot of people in the industry. What are some of the most interesting things you took from those conversations?  

I structured my thesis in three parts. The first part was literature reviews – to read up on that and come up with my conclusions. And then the second part was to actually interview experts in the industry. [And then writing it was the third].   

The key takeaway from the literature review part is that there really are no definitions that can be used or that I could base my work around. What I had to do was I had to look at how marketing literature defines attention. But that wasn't sufficient, in my opinion, because sometimes there was no definition used in papers, or there was a myriad of different definitions used in papers.   

I decided to take a step back to look at attention from a broader lens by looking at psychology and neuroscience research papers and then try to make sense of it before I eventually return to marketing journals to better understand how they view attention.   

There is really no working definition, and no one really knows what attention is. They do experiments that measure attention, but also the experiments differ. I interviewed a total of nine people from the advertising industry and Big Tech companies. Everyone had heard of attention in some way, shape, or form, but not everyone was super enthusiastic about it.  


      ...this is something that could potentially revolutionize the way advertising is done  


Obviously, those people who work in the adtech industry are super enthusiastic about it because it's new, and this is something that could potentially revolutionize the way advertising is done. But then you have other people who are a little more careful with how enthusiastic they are about it and in accepting it as a new KPI that can be used going forward.  


For those that maybe aren't as enthusiastic about attention metrics, is it that there's a concern that leaning into attention kind of makes them rethink whether what they're doing is successful or not? Because viewability, when viewed next to attention, just isn't as powerful?  

I think that the main thing that people fail to see, based on the interviews that I had, is how attention connects to business outcomes. If we were to have industry reports and literature showing that having attention as a metric that we track and correlates or causes business outcomes, then I think more people would be at ease at incorporating a new metric that is beyond just viewability or any other metric that they might find favorable.  

And I just want to add that we're talking about attention right now, you and I, and we assume that we're talking about the same thing. But that isn't always the case. I just want to point out one example. When I was talking about attention, I was viewing it as an input metric, i.e., how many people paid attention to an ad?  

And I was talking to this expert from that perspective, and he said, "Kenan, to be honest with you, I see what you're trying to do, but I don't necessarily agree with that structure of attention. He saw it as an outcome. Meaning that if I create a run an ad, how much attention does that ad generate? And then, we would track that through social media coverage. 

I actually made a model of it where I try to encompass and compass these two different use cases where you have attention as an input and then also attention as an outcome. Ultimately, I think it's too great of a metric to be able to be standardized in any meaningful way as it stands right now.  

The challenge lies therein and tries to get some consensus and what it actually means and how to track it. And what does it mean when something has a lot of attention in terms of business outcomes?  


What you're saying is attention, maybe, is an umbrella for various sub-groups of attention, whether their inputs or outputs are in different phases of the journey of someone consuming an ad and then the subsequent action that they might take or not take? 



What would you say were the most important takeaways from your research?   

The first is just bridging the gap of knowledge between measuring attention and business outcomes, because that gap or that correlation or causation is not clear to everyone. Since it's such a new concept, I would start educating people on the power attention has as a metric.

Number two would be to understand that there are different perspectives when talking about attention and what it entails. It's not worth just settling for one definition or one thing that everyone is measuring. Looking at these different adtech companies, you have very smart ways to measure attention. 

Third, come up to speed with everything that is going on. I would really recommend reading part number two of my master's thesis because I have [in-depth interviews] with all these different perspectives, and I think it creates a pretty good picture of how the industry thinks about attention.  

Obviously, there are a number of adtech companies, Realeyes being one of them, that offer solutions. But there are still some ways to go, and there are consortiums and working groups to come up with this standardization to come up with unifying elements that still haven't been solidified yet. It's still early days, and that should be heartening to an organization that maybe hasn't made headway yet because we're still on the ground floor of attention.


Anything else you wanted to add from your voluminous research or the conversations you've had both while writing it and subsequently talking about it with industry leaders?   

I think there is still a state of confusion in the greater industry, and I think I think that also holds true for the industry that the agencies that are dealing with attention as a metric. 

The most important thing is just showcasing that attention leads to profits or some other kind of goal that the customer has in mind to become a sought-after metric.   

I think a lot of people have heard about attention, but they don't know a lot about it, and they don't trust it. By showing that this is a way better metric than other metrics that you might be tracking just because we have seen that it produces these results, and it's more reliable.