IAB Member Q&A: Audio in the Attention Economy

On May 25, 2022 Research & Resources

The topic of attention in the advertising market has never been hotter but most of the coverage and metrics being discussed are focused primarily on visual attention. How should marketers and agencies be thinking about audio attention? Industry experts explain the strengths of audio as an attention driving medium and ways that this can be assessed and measured.

Thanks to those who contributed: ARN, Acast, Eardrum and Spotify.


Dr Shannon Bosshard, Research & Neuroscience Specialist, ARN

Q. Is attention the right metric for audio?

Attention provides a measure of whether, and how much, the consumer is focusing on the content of your advertisement. So the short answer is, yes, attention is the right metric for not only audio, but for all mediums. The adoption of attention as a metric will allow advertisers to go beyond answering the question of how many people were exposed to an ad, and instead, provide brands with insights into whether their ad had an impact or not.

Those employed within the field of advertising are under constant pressure to provide their clients with certainty of campaign performance. Traditionally, variations of reach and frequency have, until now, served this purpose. But as the media industry hungers for more robust metrics, the adoption of psychologically based metrics, like attention, will become more widespread. The beauty of implementing attention as a metric from an audio standpoint, is that there is no such thing as ‘no attention’. If the consumer is present, and audio is playing, the brain is allocating resources to attending to it.

In the words of Dr George Berkeley, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”. Arguably, one of the most famous philosophical questions to have ever been written. If applied to consumer contexts – if no one hears, sees, or experiences your branding, did it have an effect? The answer is obviously no.

Advertisers understand that only with attention, can a brand exist within the minds of the consumer. But once brands have attention, the goal should be to utilise additional metrics including engagement, memory, attitude, and arousal, to ensure the brand message is consumed optimally. In sum, attention is simply one piece from a much larger puzzle, and whilst important, it’s not the only metric worthwhile pursuing.

Q. Listening versus hearing – is there a meaningful difference?

By definition, these mean quite different things. The field of psychology paved the way for our understanding of how these two processes differ, initially reporting that all sounds within an individual’s environment are heard, but only sounds deemed relevant are listened to.

In recent years, neuroscience has entered the arena and demonstrated that neurons in the auditory cortex (the part of the brain relevant for the processing of sounds) respond differently depending on whether they are listening or hearing. To understand this further, ARN conducted neuro research to compare how the brain responds to focused listening to advertising (no distractions) versus passive listening (background listening while distracted by activities requiring various levels of attention).

The results show that when fully attentive (i.e. actively listening), advertising impact is above 78%. As consumers attention lowered, and only partial attention was given to audio advertising, impact remained relatively high at 58%. And when the consumer was fully distracted, and attention was at its lowest, audio maintained 30% of its advertising impact.

Unlike visual advertising where attention is measured by line of sight, audio attention is always on, just at varying levels, due to the fact you can’t shut out sound. Our research showed that active and passive attention are equally effective, yet likely serve different purposes, and secondly, that brand affinity is increased significantly regardless of whether audiences recall hearing the ad or not.

Q. What tips do you have for developing attention grabbing creatives?

We have evolved as a species to pay attention to things in our environment that are relevant and important. As an advertiser, the job of getting through to the consumer can be a challenge, so we need to be able to capitalize on every opportunity we have.

The first thing that advertisers can do is ensure that every second of their ad’s exposure is utilized. This means optimizing creatives in a way that its contents have strong connections with the brand. This ensures that regardless of the attention (active or passive) paid towards your creative, it is continuously building relevant connections within the brain.

There are few things that you can do immediately to increase ad relevance and importance:

  1. Use bespoke audio – even if the consumer doesn’t hear your brand name, they’ll be able to associate the ad with your brand
  2. Use your brand – leverage the power of your brand. You’ve invested in growing the brand, so make it present within your advertising. Let its power carry performance.
  3. Use personal references throughout your ad – the brain prioritises messages that it thinks are personal, so using words like ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘yours’, ‘we’ will get better traction
  4. Use contrast – different voices, sound effects, volumes, music, etc will break the rhythm of the brain and increase the likelihood that it is drawn out of autopilot.
  5. Employ the unexpected – Where possible, deviate from the norm.


Liam Daly, Director of Sales ANZ, Acast

Q. Is audio getting left behind in the attention economy movement? How can the audio industry address this?

To answer this question, I feel it’s important to acknowledge the way in which consumption differs across audio channels. For example, we’ve seen from research that radio and music streaming is mostly passive/background consumption whereas podcast listening is much more active - listeners truly lean in and dedicate their attention to consuming podcasts. This makes it difficult to view audio - and compare the channels that fall within it - as a single medium.

While some audio channels might be left wondering how they can keep up with the attention economy, it would be hard to argue that podcasting faces the same issue, when the reality is, attention is built into the very nature of podcasting. Using headphones 90% of the time, the listener has actively chosen to listen to that specific podcast and they switch off distractions to do so. Therefore the level of attention they’re paying to the words they’re hearing, from both podcasters and advertisers, is unrivalled.

Q. What information and evidence is available highlighting audio’s power in relation to attention?

In March, we conducted Australia's largest podcast specific research piece, the Acast Sounds Smart Report and within this, there’s multiple data points proving the high levels of attention that consumers give to podcasts.

For instance, 89% of podcast listening is done alone and 74% of listeners agree with the statement that podcasts provide them with content they want to dedicate their attention to. The big point comes when comparing how focused people are at a channel level. Podcasting is second only to cinema as the activity in which people are most immersed/focused when participating in. Importantly, the report found that podcasting is 3 x more engaging than radio and 2 x more engaging than both music streaming and TV.

Q. Is attention the right metrics for audio?

Attention is always the right metric for all channels. Without attention there is no engagement, so it really is a key marker for the impact of a medium. Podcasting is one of the most immersive media environments, meaning attention is a functional reality of our medium and at Acast, we will continue to use this as a key metric when showcasing the power of podcasting.


Ralph van Dijk, Founder, Eardrum

Q. Listening versus hearing – is there a meaningful difference?

Every waking minute of every day we’re zoning in and out as we process our surroundings. When it comes to audio, we hear everything, but only listen to what interests us, and what interests us most ….is us.

Regardless of whether the audience is consuming audio content that encourages them to ‘lean in’ (such as spoken word), or ‘lean back’ (such as music), your ad will be ignored if it doesn’t come baring gifts of entertainment, intrigue, and relevance. Sure, the audience will hear it, but only to the extent that they can tell when it’s over so they can start paying attention again.

Many brands settle for the ‘mere exposure effect’, which describes our preference for things simply because we’re familiar with them. But this impact pales into insignificance compared to the benefits of an audio message that truly engages its audience and capitalises on audio’s unique ability to target the emotions. 

Because the audience needs to let an audio message in to process it, audio has a massive advantage over content that the audience can turn their eyes away from. But getting their attention is only the first stage, because to change the behaviour of a consumer, a brand needs to find a place in her long-term memory. The place the brain stores information for more than one hour and where it can remain for decades.

Dr Seth Horowitz, auditory neuroscientist at Brown University, Rhode Island, USA says

“The difference between the sense of hearing and the skill of listening is attention. When you actually pay attention to something you’re listening to, whether it is your favourite song….a separate “top-down” pathway comes into play. Here, the signals are conveyed through a dorsal pathway in your cortex, part of the brain that does more computation, which lets you actively focus on what you’re hearing and tune out sights and sounds that aren’t as immediately important.”

In other words, there is without a doubt a significant difference between passively hearing an ad and actively listening to one.

Q. What tips do you have for developing attention grabbing creative?

The number one tip is to frame the message from the listener’s perspective. Ask yourself what they will find entertaining and which of their problems can the brand solve. Everything else is secondary.

The criteria we use to evaluate all our scripts is ‘relevant cleverness’. We first capture the listener’s attention with something intriguing or entertaining, and then invite them to stay in our world by giving them authentic characters to relate to and vivid scenes to imagine. In other words, we make the listener the co-author. The next time they hear the ad, they’ll recall those pictures, and the impact continues to increase.

There is no place on any audio platform for an ad that shouts its demands. The adage of the empty vessel making the most noise is true for all audio advertising. Audio is an intimate medium so be sympathetic to the environment, speak in a conversational tone and treat the audience with respect.

Don’t be seduced by unnecessary, distracting audio effects and techniques. An authentic character or relatable scene is a much more powerful way to capture the listener’s attention, simply because it’s something they can relate to.

Finally cast actors, not voice overs. Voice overs make your words audible; actors bring your words to life.


Adrian Bingham, Director of Sales, Spotify

Q. Is audio getting left behind in the attention economy movement? How can the audio industry address this?

In short, no. Attention has become a precious resource and is in high demand. Although marketers have started to focus on attention, many are still not thinking about attention in all its forms. Today, attention metrics for audio are based on models derived from TV and mostly built from a combination of eye-tracking and recall/intention to purchase data. These methodologies are not relevant for digital audio (you can’t see what you hear/listen to) and when it comes to attention, there is growing evidence that our ears deserve as much study as our eyes!

When Spotify partnered with Neuro-Insight for Sonic Science, we specifically wanted to leverage their proprietary technology called Steady State Topography (SST) as we believe that attention with audio is best measured at the subconscious level. And SST is a great way to look into it because it establishes if listeners registered the brand into their long term memory centre by measuring the activity happening in that specific part of the brain.

Historically (and still today actually), attention is mainly about visual focus and active attention. By looking at the impact of digital audio on our subconscious, we took both active and passive attention into consideration - which we believe is an even stronger proxy for how visual media is measured.

A number of the IAB Audio Council members are already addressing this and have collaborated across a number of industry and client specific research projects, incl OMD’s annual Soundscape study and more specific to Spotify we also have recently partnered on  Dentsu International’s Attention Economy series.

When it comes to discussing how audio plays a role in the attention economy, it’s important we call out podcasts specifically. We know that podcast consumption is on the rise (37% of Australians listen to podcasts every month and we are forecasting over 7.4m podcast listeners in Australia for 2022). Podcast listeners have a strong passion for the podcast they listen to as well as the host themselves and we have research that supports the point: ad attention peaks for podcasts due to the strong passion and trust the audience places in the host.

Taking this a step further, soon advertisers will have a proxy for active attention in audio with the introduction of interactive ad formats such as Spotify’s Call To Action Cards that appear at the same time that the listener is hearing the podcast ad and enable them to take action based on this.

Q. What information and evidence is available highlighting audio’s power in relation to attention?

Neuro-Insight’s Sonic Science research was able to prove that digital audio is uniquely powerful thanks to its interactivity and personalisation. For advertisers, that means there’s a huge opportunity for brands.

Neuro-Insight technology showed that the listening experience for digital audio was significantly elevated across all metrics —leading to higher memorability, engagement, and emotional intensity. In today’s crowded media landscape, advertisers are finding it increasingly difficult to breakthrough. Spotify’s impact on the brain, measured by Neuro-Insight, can result in a significant impact on ad memorability and brand impact alike. We found that 93% of the brain’s engagement with the content transferred directly into ad engagement as the listener moved from their music and podcasts to the ad.