EXCLUSIVE: What You Know About Audience Engagement Is Wrong. And Viacom is Fixing It

Viacom’s new attention study opens today in New York. Here’s a first look at the interactive exhibit based on its findings.


Marketers have long concerned themselves with the question of how to break through the growing list of distractions gnawing at consumers’ attention. Social media and smart devices have become a boon and blight for brands in that there’s never been more ways to reach audiences, but, with the floodgates open and content awash, grabbing attention, and subsequently that all-important “engagement,” is sure to suffer, right?


Not really, according to a recent study by Scratch, media giant Viacom’s creative consultancy division.

The lynchpin of Scratch’s “attention study” is the fact that “75% of consumers believe their ability to pay attention is improving or remaining constant.”

Yes, consumers have more options than ever as to what content they want to engage with, but they’re also more discerning with their choices. So the concern among marketers shouldn’t necessarily be “are consumers paying attention or not?”–it’s about how consumers are paying attention and knowing them well enough to give them content that matters to them.

“What we see is a really important shift in the dynamics of attention in this economy because consumers are in charge,” says Anne Hubert, SVP of Scratch. “They’re not just idle audiences sitting back receiving what’s pumped out–they’re actually calling the shots of what they’re going to hear or not.”

Hubert and her team have taken their study and translated it into an interactive exhibit in Viacom’s New York City headquarters, kicking off today and running until October 8. Installations are dedicated to animating Scratch’s data, which, most notably, includes the same biometric monitors used on the study’s participants–galvanic skin response, eye movement, and facial expressions–that has allowed Scratch to dig deeper in their research to uncover what should be the new definition of attention and every brand and marketers goal posts: “see,” “feel,” and “own.”



“What our audiences and consumers see is influenced by who they trust,” Hubert says. It should come as no surprise that consumers are more likely to watch, listen to, or read content that’s recommended to them by a trusted source–and the numbers in Scratch’s study only serve to bolster this idea, with 84% saying they’re influenced to watch content recommended by someone they know and 75% saying they’d watch content because “a lot of people are talking about it.”

And how do you get people talking about your content? By making sure it sticks to Scratch’s two more important tenets of eliciting an emotional response, and engendering a sense of ownership.


How audiences consume content leans heavily on how they feel about it–and, as Hubert explains, there’s nothing quite as powerful as “collective attention,” i.e., events like the Super Bowl or this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, which, as it turns out, was a case study in itself. Although viewership was down slightly compared to last year, dropping from 10.3 million to 9.8 million, online streams and engagement on social media hit record highs–not only because of moments that practically tweeted themselves (Re: “Miley, what’s good?”), but because of how MTV was able to leverage the creativity of their viewers.

“The watershed moment for us was the VMAs,” says Ross Martin, Viacom’s EVP of marketing, strategy, and engagement. “You have a linear television experience, and then there’s this whole thing that happened on digital where our audience pulled the content and the experience in ways that we had never seen before, with volume that basically set a record on every platform.”

And that blends directly into the study’s most key component: what moves audiences to a level where they want to take content, make it their own, and share it.



Of course not every brand has a platform like the VMAs in its pocket–and not even MTV can hope for that level of engagement across their other shows and digital content–however, that shouldn’t diminish the goal of getting audiences to the level of wanting to remix what your pushing. It’s figuring out how to cultivate fandoms in a way that isn’t intrusive or seemingly opportunistic.

“Young consumers know more than ever that you’re a marketer with a message, and they’re okay with that, but you’ve got to make it worth it,” says Hubert. “And you’ve got to have permission to be in the spaces that you’re in. And show up in a way that’s credible to who you are.”

Martin goes further, describing fandom as the “apex of engagement.”

“What we mean by fandom is you’ve fallen in love with something we put out in the world and you’ve chosen to bring it into your life in a meaningful way,” he says “Maybe it helps you understand who you are better or who you’re not. Maybe it helps you socially to understand where you fit. The engagement and the intimacy is much more important to us than if you saw 5% of the pixels for less than two seconds and it counts as an ad–that doesn’t count for us.”

Even though Scratch has nabbed partnerships with Yale Center for Customer Insights and Spotify through their study, Hubert notes that it is by no means a one-strategy-fits-all blueprint–it’s merely the launchpad for what she says is “a more nuanced, rich way of understanding what engagement looks like today.”


About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.