Why Context is Key to More Effective Social Media Advertising

It’s no longer enough to simply be in the feed. In order to break through and create better enrollment marketing outcomes, it’s crucial to understand the “attention potential” of each new media and context.

By: Chris Huebner

For enrollment marketers, social media advertising has become a permanent fixture within the marketing mix. As traditional platforms evolve and new ones emerge, however, there is still much to learn in this space amidst the creative potential.

Even with the rise of Spotify and new video formats, the bulk of current research on advertising in social media focuses on Facebook. Within the industry, advice such as “be authentic” and “keep it under six seconds” form the principles to an effective ad campaign. Unfortunately, relying on the application of Gen Z studies to our advertising may be short-sighted. There are more significant resources to use when extending deliverables outside of digital advertising.

To be successful, advertising needs two critical elements: solid branding and the ability to stand out.

From a recruitment perspective, prospective students consider social media advertising less intrusive and perceive it more positively. According to Ruffalo Noel Levitz’s 2018 E-Expectations® Trend Report, high school seniors report an increase in clicks across social media advertisements (Facebook, Youtube, and “other social media or blog posts”). The catch? Our message must break through.

As more brands compete for attention among a sea of user-generated content, the more passive this media environment becomes and the more users are trained to filter out ads (i.e., banner blindness). Likewise, the more important it is to have an understanding of the “attention potential” of each new media and context. So how can we refine our understanding of how advertising works to create better brand effects and enrollment marketing outcomes?

A recent ThinkTV study found that consumers could correctly recall only four percent of campaign exposures within a 10-minute timeframe on Facebook. The study’s focus was a comparative analysis of media attributes across video advertising units (television and online) and how those attributes impact brand growth, proving the difficulty of disrupting the newsfeed.

Knowing this, one has to wonder if the lessons learned from “traditional” advertising effectiveness research might be extended to newer, emerging advertising units like Spotify, Instagram Stories, and Youtube pre-roll ad placements?

To be successful, advertising needs two critical elements: solid branding and the ability to stand out. Getting there requires both an understanding of what brand elements contribute to advertising effectiveness as well as media characteristics that, once understood, will enable better creative strategies.

Lessons From “Traditional Media”

Using TV advertising research to act as a foundation, brand execution effectiveness studies provide clear guidance on how branding should be delivered to produce effects. While parts may seem obvious, what has become evident in terms of positive effects is equally as important as what has had no impact. Across this category of research, four key findings emerge:

  • In terms of video advertising, effectiveness is less about persuasion and more about recall. This is partly due to a passive social media environment.
  • There is no relationship between the duration of branding and recall or persuasion, meaning more branding doesn’t necessarily mean better branding.
  • Early brand presence is a driving force for brand recall. While this may seem intuitive, in Viral Marketing, researchers found, on average, more than a third of all social videos conclude with the brand shown only at the end.
  • Across multiple studies, visual brand frequency was found to be more impactful than verbal. However, there is still power in combining both visual and verbal branding; it’s about finding the right balance with each channel. Once again, this may seem intuitive, but only 6 percent of social media advertisements contain both. Interestingly, subtitles are not typically an effective solution even though most ads have adopted them.

Media Attributes That Matter

Beyond establishing principles of effectiveness, it’s important to consider the placement of our ads and what media attributes may affect the impact of the advertising. Elements such as attention, environmental clutter, and brand prominence play a role in advertising performance.

Attention in Context

In terms of attention, not only should we consider effective creative drivers (i.e., emotions, setting, story), but also how the specific channel or ad type delivers attention. For example, alignment between ad and context (the channel) can amplify Halo Effects, meaning an ad is more likely to be processed as well as viewed favorably. Knowing that Spotify is likely used in a gym/exercise setting, performance-related messaging or brands in the health and wellness space have a stronger opportunity to have an impact and lessen ad avoidance.

Social Clutter

Perhaps clutter goes hand-in-hand with attention, but one primary distinction is its effect on recall. While an ad may be visible within a newsfeed, how exposure occurs is important (how much of the screen is covered by the ad and what surrounds the ad). Frequency may also be easier to achieve under budget restraints, yet Facebook routinely underperforms when it comes to recall studies. Unfortunately for some social media platforms, the amount of screen coverage limits the potential of the ad, an element shown to have a positive relationship with attention and sales.  

Brand Prominence

Lastly, brand prominence within a channel is important. Research from ThinkTV found that ads that produced greater sales impact showed the brand at twice the size of poorly-performing ads, showed the brand almost twice as often, and were 25% more likely to display the brand within the first two seconds.

Examples and Takeaways for Higher Ed Marketers

Combining both principles of effectiveness and an understanding of how media elements can help drive better outcomes, we can apply these learnings to newer advertising opportunities.

Instagram Stories

Instagram Stories enjoy both complete screen coverage and static/dynamic ad delivery. In many cases, brands adopt either a billboard-like approach to the creative or a video-driven narrative (think commercial).

In either approach, to enable easier recall, consider: showing the brand logo within the first few seconds, incorporating assets distinct to your brand, and delivering messaging using uncluttered visuals.

Instagram Story as Billboard

West Elm and Chipotle Instagram Story Advertisements

In both of these examples, the brand logo is present throughout the duration of the Story. While the logo remains static, the background scrolls through a series of images using distinctive brand assets native to current marketing materials. The copy is kept to a minimum throughout to allow for an uncluttered ad environment.

Instagram Story as Video-Driven Narrative

When using a video-driven narrative, it is still important to show the brand logo early, incorporate distinctive brand assets, and keep visuals uncluttered. The longer it takes your message to unfold, the more important it is to grab attention first, before worrying about a call to action.

Attention is influenced by creating an immediate emotional response, pairing visual products against vivid backgrounds that contrast, or by placing the subject of the story front and center. Maintaining interest is influenced by the pace (how quickly scenes change or movement of camera), story, and the ability to elicit an emotion that is tied to memory structures.

Northface Instagram Story Advertisement

The North Face places the viewer immediately into a travel scenario. The subject is established quickly through a series of quick cuts, with the focus being on the products (jacket and hat) to establish brand presence early. The ad expands to show that the subject’s emotions are driven by exploring the world with friends, reinforcing “Never Stop Exploring.”

Takeaways for higher ed marketers:

  • Outside of logo, incorporate colors, textures, and environment as distinctive assets to aid in recall.
  • Keep message within 5-10 words. The more words, the less cluttered the visuals should be.
  • Align message with the media environment. Your message must compete with brands and peer-generated content.
  • Think less about CTAs and more about establishing attention.
  • When considering ad length, 15 seconds is the sweet spot (the max for a story).
  • Hold attention by placing the audience immediately into the story, focusing on a single subject and using close cuts to create intimacy.


Roughly 47 percent of Spotify’s 191 million users are paid subscribers, meaning there is still a large majority of users listening to ads as part of their app experience. Not only has Spotify been shown to create a more intimate ad experience (meaning low avoidance), but it gives advertisers the ability to combine audio with visuals in distinct ways.

Whether it’s studying, working, or working out, there are a multitude of ways Spotify ads can achieve thematic or emotional alignment within the context of the platform. Thematic alignment establishes a link between the context of music listening and messaging. For example, music consumed to relax paired with advertising for meditation apps form a thematic alignment. Emotional alignment establishes a link between the activity associated while music is consumed and the use of specific emotion within the ad. For example, we may feel motivated or experience emotions such as pride or relief when exercising. Ads that can tap into those same feelings and emotion with a message form an emotional alignment. When strategically aligned, memory activation and attention processing have been shown to greatly increase both recall and message comprehension.

Spotify also has a display ad unit that is delivered in tandem with audio advertising. Display should perform much like a static Instagram Stories ad. In terms of messaging, while the audio ad can use context to drive attention and interest, the display ad can provide rational messaging that helps to reinforce interest.

Lactaid spotify Ad example

Lactaid used their audio advertising to empathize with people who have a complicated relationship with milk. Targeting the everyday athlete, the ad acknowledges the frustrations many experience — “No more will you make my morning and ruin my day.” The display ad reinforces the primary product benefit, “100% Real Milk.”

Takeaways for higher ed marketers:

  • Consider the multiple emotional benefits of a brand and find listening moments that fit thematically based on audience. More alignments create an environment for more impact.
  • Find words that help extend the alignment of context and message. When in doubt, start with “you.”
  • Use verbal messaging to communicate proposition and visuals to create a compelling reason to believe the verbal message.
  • Use ambient noise and non-verbal cues to activate memory structures or activate associations that lead to brand or context.

YouTube Bumper Ads

YouTube offers multiple ad units with either skippable or non-skippable options, particularly with its six-second bumper ad strategies.

Much of the research suggests that the six-second ad format is more impactful when used to reinforce a message already delivered in a longer format or as part of a sequence of ads. Research showed younger audiences respond more favorably to six-second ad formats. T-Mobile found that six-second ad units boosted brand recall, likability, and message recall during the 2017 World Series. Similarly, The Advertising Research Foundation and TVision Insights found six-second ads to capture more attention per second than standard units.

As with Instagram Stories, displaying the brand logo early on and the introduction of distinct brand assets strengthen recall. So for this format, it’s best to stick with simple messaging, a single objective, and establish story immediately.

This Samsung Galaxy S8 ad includes the name of the product and focuses on a single product benefit, the large screen that flows from edge to edge. The color usage is aligned with the larger campaign.

Video and film elements, such as pacing, sequence, and narrative also contribute to attention and engagement. Television and video advertising is the most impactful ad unit to drive emotion, a strong predictor of ad effectiveness. Although research is limited on evoking emotion within six seconds, novelty and humor do appear to be the easiest to convey, while ads that make a brand seem different are likely to produce positive brand effects. So while humor may not align well with all brands, differentiating the ad itself may be the better place to start. In terms of recall, exhilaration is the positive emotion that has the strongest relationship. Remember, stories don’t always need a conclusion to be effective.  

Takeaways for higher ed marketers:

  • You can’t do everything in six seconds. Consider one audience, one proposition/benefit, and one story.
  • Front-load your story arc. Immediately establish place and focus of the narrative. If a person is the focus of the narrative, create an immediate connection with your audience.  
  • If you have the budget, consider sequential storytelling. Watch the Greatest Stories Retold for examples of sequential shooting.
  • 95 percent of YouTube ads are viewed with the sound on. Reinforce brand name and use music to heighten emotion.
  • In 15-second formats, the optimal number of scenes is 3.6. While this has yet to be fully explored in a six-second format, the more scenes you load into your story, the less effective message comprehension becomes.

Harvard professor Thales Tiexeira wrote, “Marketers can best start their media buying strategy by understanding the attention potential of each media and context.” In other words, it’s no longer enough to be in the feed. While digital advertising has provided unprecedented reach, we must also consider the quality of impression our units deliver as it relates to cost. Instagram Stories, Spotify ads, and YouTube bumper ads still have the reach, but they also deliver a higher quality impression among the clutter. At the end of the day, context can either work for or against our efforts.

Chris Huebner

Chris Huebner

Assistant Director of Online Presence

Christopher Huebner is the Assistant Director for Online Presence at the University of South Carolina. He is responsible for developing marketing and recruitment strategies. Aside from his endless pursuit to understand how advertising works, he finds time to hike and adventure across South Carolina.

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Robert Mattaliano
Robert Mattaliano
3 years ago

Smart piece, Chris

Gabriel Welsch
Gabriel Welsch
3 years ago

This article is excellent. Thank you.

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