Life After Cookies: 5 Digital Advertising Strategies to Engineer Attention

Tracking user behavior online is getting more complex. You can still maximize your ad efficiency with these creative tactics.

By: Chris Huebner
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It’s not just i0S 14 that signals strange times are ahead for higher education marketers. As platforms like Snapchat and TikTok continue to grow and advertisers brace for a cookie-free world, brought to you in the very near future by Apple and Google, the way in which higher education marketers begin to advertise and measure will look much more, well, traditional. 

As marketers we love what we can count. Clicks and conversions show that users have taken action and we can subsequently formulate a response to the cumulative movement of each metric. When we have become reliant on signals that may no longer be reliable (i.e. clicks, attribution windows, in-platform attribution models), perhaps a more forward-thinking perspective on advertising is to return to the more traditional view of advertising: an investment into what people remember from our ads. To do so is to recognize that as full-screen and passive media environments become the norm, we will need to prioritize maximizing attention – and rely less on the trackable metrics and attribution we’ve relied on in digital media for the last decade-plus – in each media as our primary media strategy.

According to Lumen, only 9% of digital ads are looked at for more than one second

Here we will outline five creative strategies to enhance your advertising in a way that will increase the likelihood that your message will be noticed and remembered, both of which should be at the front of our advertising strategy going forward.

Exposure and attention: A quick advertising primer

“Like a spotlight, attention helps us focus on some stimuli in preference to others” – Gailynn Nicks and Yannick Carriou

Advertising works when you’re remembered, and that tends to go hand-in-hand with strong branding.. In higher ed, both factors are a function of how a prospective student is exposed to an ad as well as the attention-seeking elements of that ad. Exposure is best thought of as how the media environment and media attributes of the channel affect the impression. Full-screen, audio-on media environments give the advertiser a huge advantage, and are, fortunately, attributes of many of the more popular social media channels. 

Efforts to capture the attention of the consumer can be strengthened by creative strategies that increase the viewer’s ability to process the ad. Increasing ad effectiveness is improved by the context (exposure) in which an impression is secured, as well as the devices used to gain attention and increase the cognitive processing of the ad. If online advertising effectiveness is driven by reaching the most people with the highest quality impression, then a thorough investigation of attention-seeking creative strategies can dramatically help marketing results.

5 creative strategies to improve attention

“Communications need an attention strategy.” – Faris Yakob

As it relates to advertising, attention is best defined as the amount of cognitive resources being deployed. According to Robert Heath, “In layman’s terms this means the level of attention is the amount of ‘Conscious Thinking’ directed at the advertising.”

Knowing that advertising doesn’t require high levels of attention to be effective, Heath developed his Low Attention Processing Model, which, in a nutshell, dictates that brand information can be communicated at very low attention levels through passive learning and implicit learning. Both learning processes are semi-automatic and fully automatic, which means they are employed every time an ad is seen or heard. This is regardless of how little attention is being paid. For the mere milliseconds users spend on digital advertising there are small shifts in our creative that we can use to improve our advertising outcomes.

1. Make the Logo Bigger

No matter the ultimate goal of our advertising, connecting it to the brand is critical. Solid, attention-grabbing creative is one thing, but if it isn’t connected to the brand then our advertising has ultimately failed. Small changes in how we think about incorporating our logo, either in display or video, can have dramatic results. 

  • For Bumper Ads: As a rule of thumb, show the brand early and often. No matter the ad unit, establishing the brand or incorporating assets distinct to the brand within the first few seconds greatly affects recall. Under Armour quickly establishes its brand through multiple product shots and connects with end users with a celebrity endorser in this ad featuring baseball’s Bryce Harper.

  • For Display: Display ads should include a direct link to the brand via always-present branding (logo or name). A brand’s logo is a distinctive asset that helps to maintain mental networks, improve saliency and linkage to the brand. This University of Arizona ad quickly links the brand to the brand platform. The more fluent “Wonder” becomes, the easier UA can extend their messaging to incorporate more brand benefits that tie-in with the campaign.

Image of an ad for the University of Arizona on a smartphone, prominently featuring the word 'Wonder.'

2. Create Memorable Emotions

Emotion is at the heart of attention-seeking devices. It’s important to understand that this doesn’t always mean deep-seeded emotions like fear and happiness or producing emotion for emotion’s sake. To be successful, the ad must move from attention to memory. In a sense, emotional responses must be attached to memory structures to become stored as a lasting memory. The advertiser’s job is to then illicit a response that creates, shapes or reinforces lasting memory.

As Erik du Plessis wrote in “The Advertised Mind,” creating an overwhelmingly emotional ad without developing memory structures ultimately creates a fleeting experience. To maximize impact, there needs to be particular attention paid to how attention is focused and how the response will relate to the brand. Advertisers who can do this will drive advertising effectiveness by increasing depth of processing and memory formation, or recall.

  • For Youtube: Purdue University Global used context, pace and the dramatic sounds of the ER to place the viewer directly into the nursing scenario. For those interested in this career path, the Youtube ad captures the fascination of the ER while powerfully communicating a functional benefit in an emotional way.

3. Be Single-Minded

Research has shown that the more messages an ad incorporates, the less likely any single message will actually get communicated. It’s important to remember that our message is competing against a litany of distractions, so while it is tempting to appease various stakeholders by packing in as many priority messages as possible, doing so can doom our ads to failure.

A graph showing that the fewer messages are in an ad, the more they are retained.

Multiple messages can lower recall as well as impact processing, so it is imperative to to stick to one product benefit, particularly in small-screen digital environments. When thinking through the creative of display ads, consider the ultimate communications objective: Is it to reinforce your brand or is it to get prospective students to sign up for an information session? 

  • For Display: In the display ad below, Butler University quickly establishes an important degree outcome. The placement rate reinforces the primary tagline and a link to the Butler brand is quickly established. 

Image of a ad for Butler University showing half of a bulldog's face and saying 'What bulldogs dream, they do. 95% placement rate.

  • For Instagram Stories: Similar to the Butler ad, this Kutztown University Instagram Stories ad shows how you can be single-minded and still align with the overarch campaign platform. “Graduate with less debt” creates a clear proposition regarding cost and communicated in such a way that it doesn’t stray from the campaign.

Image of two digital ads for Kutztown University about affordability and character.

4. Show Faces

Faces not only attract audience attention but also can be used to communicate emotion. In “Decoded,” Phil Barden suggests that “seeing a (good-looking) face triggers the reward center in the brain.” Not only are there reward triggers, but faces may also anchor our orienting response mechanism and command “greater attention and preference than other advertisements in short time lapses.” 

Image of a man wearing a bike helmet looking at the camera with a serious face. The words 'Storm Sealed Cuffs' is in the center of the image.

5. Manipulate Media Environments

The Von Restorff Effect, or the isolation effect, is a cognitive bias that describes our tendency to remember things that stand out. For advertisers, this could mean creating ads that stand out by manipulating standard media environments.

  • For Twitter: In Twitter’s rapid-scroll feed, Sonos created an ad that with a graphic design that appeared to pulse like sound waves. The motion of the “waves” in the feed created an effect that was so unique to the normal scroll experience that it immediately stood out from the standard “static” effect of the scroll. 

Image with soundwaves surrounding the word 'Sonos'

  • For Instagram: To stand out, Lactaid disrupted the expected feed experience by creating cognitive dissonance. By breaking what’s familiar, the mind is forced to make sense of it. The ad is successful because it uses a branded design element to disrupt the feed, making the brand part of the sense making.

Image of a Lactaid Instagram ad that shows milk pouring from one ad, outside of the image, and into a cup in another ad space.

Dramatic change in the ways we create and track our digital ads is already arriving, and as we adapt, it’s important to remember that, according to a recent Lumen report, only 9% of digital ads are looked at for more than a second. These five attention-seeking creative strategies, when used in the appropriate context, can dramatically tip the scales for marketers – with or without cookies .

Chris Huebner

Chris Huebner

Christopher Huebner is a digital strategist at Up&Up, a higher education branding and marketing agency in Greenville, S.C. He has worked both agency and client-side, where he has planned and executed marketing and recruitment strategies across multiple program types and institutions. His work has been published in Journal of Education Advancement & Marketing, Journal of Digital and Social Media and the Journal of Marketing Communications for Higher Education.

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