How Can your Digital Ads Achieve Attention?

Digital channels present unique challenges for advertisers. How can you best capture audience attention and build your brand?

There’s no denying that social media platforms present opportunities for brands to reach consumers. Facebook has nearly 3 billion active users, Instagram has more than 2 billion and TikTok has more than 1 billion and counting. But with social media feeds intentionally designed for users to quickly scroll and swipe through content, advertisers often wonder how they can be seen and remembered.

Let’s take a closer look at the main challenges that digital platforms present and how to address them.

Digital Advertising Challenges

Reach is relatively affordable with digital channels, but it comes with an attention trade off. Unfortunately, 85% of digital ads do not pass the 2.5-second attention-memory threshold, as outlined in research by Professor Karen Nelson-Field of Amplified Intelligence. Meanwhile, a 30-second TV ad achieves around 14 seconds of attention. Since attention is tied to sales uplift and brand building, brands need to capture and sustain attention.

On System1’s 1 to 5-Star ad testing scale, which predicts long-term brand building potential, the digital norm based on 5,000+ 5-13-second creatives is 1.9-Stars, lower than the global norm of 2.2-Stars. The digital norm for Spike Rating, which predicts short-term sales potential, is also lower (0.96 compared to 1.09). Generally, short-duration creative struggles to score highly on both long- and short-term performance due to lack of emotional intensity.

Through research conducted with Meta’s data in Orlando Wood’s book with the IPA, Look out, we have also found that adhering to “Brilliant Basics” (digital creative best practice) successfully increases Success Rate, measured by achieving brand lift or conversion. However, we have seen that high Star Rating ads achieve even more success.

It’s also worth noting that Instagram and Facebook users react more negatively to digital ads. Users are overexposed to ads, meaning that creative needs to work harder to grab attention and maintain it. Driving positive emotions in viewers is crucial for winning attention and creating mental availability for a brand.  

Key Elements for Effective Digital Ads

As Wood writes in Lemon and Look out, advertising styles are correlated with ad effectiveness. Left-brain advertising is on the rise and we’re seeing fewer and fewer right-brain features in ads. As Wood writes, “The use of digital channels is contributing to the dominance of left-brain work.” This consists of abstract, flat ads with words obtruding the ad, voiceovers, freeze-frame effects and highly rhythmic soundtracks. The problem with appealing to the left hemisphere of the brain is that ads won’t support long-term growth.

Advertisers should instead incorporate right-brain features, which are better at securing attention in-feed and in turn, delivering long-term market share growth. Consider the following right-brain elements in your ads:

Food and Drink Mirroring

Appeal to sensory pleasures. In a short span, you can communicate deliciousness to drive positive emotion. Cadbury’s “Night” ad achieved the highest ever score for a 6-second ad on System1’s database. The focus is on the brand’s tangible distinctive assets, its chocolate and packaging and feels like an extension of the brand’s longer executions for the “Glass and a Half” campaign.

Sense of Place

Make it clear where your characters are or where your scene is unfolding. When there is no identifiable sense of place, advertising feels removed from reality. Grounding an ad in a specific place draws human emotional attention. For example, Vans’ ad features musician Anderson .Paak in a studio, playing the drums, with plenty of visuals of the shoes.


The right hemisphere of the brain can comprehend humour. Lean into jokes and metaphors that can quickly and easily provide comic relief. Humour leads viewers to feel happiness and surprise, positive emotions that make an ad and advertiser more memorable over the long term. Yoplait developed dozens of 6-second ads leveraging a mix of humour, confidence-building and empathy to tackle “mom shaming.”

Fluent Device

A Fluent Device is a recurring character with agency or repeatable scenario that a brand adopts and ideally, repeatedly leverages in its creative. In both the UK and the US, ads featuring a Fluent Device achieve stronger emotional response than ads that don’t feature them. Character Fluent Devices, like the Red and Yellow M&Ms, are an especially great fit for digital because they are highly visual properties that can quickly make an impression.

Cultural Context

Using cultural references helps to draw attention rapidly and enhance emotional intensity. Perhaps you’re referencing past cultural works that are easily recognised and loved, or you may refer to the cultural trends of present day, like Baileys has done with its “Witches” ad featuring famous UK drag queens.

In addition to considering the above right-brain features, consider these best practices:

Test the full-length version of your creative.

How do viewers feel about the 60- or 30-second version of your ad? Testing uncovers what is driving specific emotions, when and why. These insights can then be used to create the most effective cut downs for digital platforms, like Cadbury’s “Night.”

Ensure speedy branding.

Ensure the first 2-seconds of the asset is used to build Fluency the most. This checks whether distinctive famous brand assets have been used effectively and integrated into the asset to ensure consumers are engaged enough to pay them attention and attribute the campaign to the correct brand even if they do skip.

Lean into digital’s targeting strengths.

Test your creative with custom samples to understand how it resonates with your target segment. Tailoring creative to audiences you can target on digital means you are more likely to build positive, intense emotions that lead to greater short-term sales effects and long-term brand building. Targeting will also increase the likelihood that audiences will recognise the brand faster, especially if creative best practices have been considered.

System1’s Test Your Ad platform can help you improve the quality of your advertising. Try it today to develop digital ads that make their mark with audiences.