What is your 1-second digital ad strategy?

Mobile Marketing Association (MMA)

May 2, 2021

The challenge

How much time does an ad need to be seen for it to be responded to? From experimental psychology and psychophysics, it's been known for decades that brief stimuli can be detected and have a brief impact on people's perception, thought and even action. But how about ads in a more complex environment such as a social media feed on a phone? Here, we have little to no actual data.

Similarly, the advertising industry has traditionally only considered ads as they have been seen from beginning to end. After all, advertising has been used in newspapers, cinemas, radio, and television for decades and often as part of a stream of content. But with the rise of the digital era, we have many new platforms that put the consumer in control of the stream of information. Such streams challenge the long-learned lessons for advertising on TV and other formats. The challenge behind this study was therefore to test some of the basic assumptions for advertising on digital media, including:

  • How long does an ad need to be available before it is seen?
  • What is the exposure time for an ad before it registers emotionally and cognitively?

Here, we present the results of what turned out to be the world's largest consumer neuroscience study on mobile devices.

How we performed the study

The company was commissioned by the Mobile Marketing Association and was performed in collaboration with the Advertising Research Foundation. The work was also performed with most of the major social media brands and other digital outlets and online news sites. So let's start with the facts and numbers:

  • A total of 1.049 participants were tested
  • All participants were tested using eye-tracking glasses and a brain monitor (EEG)
  • The study was performed in Austin, TX during spring/summer 2018
  • We tested ads presented on different social media platforms
  • Participants were tested on content in their own social media feed, which was controlled by us.

Three mobile phones displaying Twitter feeds.

For the tasks, we asked the participants to do the following:

  • Natural scroll -- participants were asked to go through their social media feeds in the manner they would usually do. Here, we assessed the duration of ad exposures during natural behavior
  • Fixed scroll -- we used different preprogrammed speeds where ad duration was controlled (ranging from 100 milliseconds to 3 seconds)
  • Post-trial tests -- after the ad exposures, participants were given some distraction tasks and were then asked to undergo an implicit memory task for the posts
"We have to develop a strategy that works for the first second. That doesn’t mean the second second doesn’t matter either, but it’s really about immediately breaking through."
Tressie Lieberman, VP digital marketing, Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc said to Wall Street Journal

Responses to rapid ads

This study provided many compelling findings, both general and for individual platforms as well as for specific groups. Here, we have produced an infographic that highlights the main findings.

Click the image to open it in full size (opens new window/tab)

"Well-known brands should consider shifting from 60-second and 30-second ads to 15-second and six-second length.
- Brent Bouldin, VP marketing & customer acquisition, Choice Hotels Int. Inc to Wall Street Journal

What does it mean?

The MMA study shows that advertising on digital media is a completely different game than traditional formats such as TV and print. While this has been known for some time, this study shows the importance of speed on digital platforms. Since advertising exposure on digital media relies so much more on the individual user, we also see that first impression and the speed of detection become crucial for ads to work. The findings here show just how strong a proper 1-second strategy can be utilized. After all, if you can win or lose your audience in a blink of an eye, you need to focus on the first few seconds.

But instead of this, many advertisers focus on larger narratives that require the viewer to willingly spend time on their ad, to follow their narrative arc, and to stay until the big reveal at the end of the ad where the brand and/or product is revealed. Having a 1-second ad strategy for digital media is a mind-blowing challenge. It requires you to focus your effort in new areas that many have not even considered:

  • Is the ad visually salient? Will it automatically grab people's attention?
  • Is it engaging within the first few seconds? Will it make viewers stay?
  • Does it make an impact? Will viewers respond emotionally and cognitively in such a way that they will be interested and later remember the ad and the brand?

Only consumer neuroscience can reliably answer these questions.

Some mentions of this study

Read more about where this study made an impact: