Return on Attention (ROA): What is it, why care, and how to measure it

ROA is an alternative to ROI and other marketing metrics, allowing you to better understand top-of-funnel marketing performance. Learn how to use it here
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Not all marketing needs to direct impact on revenue. Brand building and product awareness are essential. Yet many marketers struggle to measure its success, by using ROI as their only goal.

Return on Attention (ROA) is the antidote to this problem. It’s a way of measuring how effectively marketing efforts have captured their audience’s attention. With ROA as a metric, it’s easier to understand how successful top-of-funnel marketing is. As a result, marketers can improve their approach and drive more revenue long-term.

In this article, we’ll explain what ROA is in more detail. We’ll also cover how you can start measuring it and increase the efficacy of your top-of-funnel marketing.

What is Return on Attention (ROA) and how do you measure it?

Return on Attention (ROA) is a metric that measures how well marketing efforts capture audience attention. It offers a different perspective from other common marketing metrics that focus on revenue or user growth. 

ROA is particularly suited to measuring the efficacy of marketing on channels that don’t reliably drive conversions.

What “attention” means is context-dependent, so there’s no widely-accepted formula for measuring ROA. Fundamentally, though, it should tell you how many “units” of attention your marketing has won. What this looks like in practice varies based on the marketing channel being used. 

For example, you could measure attention in:

  • Post views for an organic LinkedIn campaign
  • Impressions or page views in an organic search campaign
  • Minutes watched for a series of video content
  • Website sessions >1 minute for a content marketing piece
  • Unique listens for a podcast series

You can also measure the cost of the attention you’ve gained. If you’re measuring the ROA of a single blog post, for example, you might decide to classify one “engaged session” in GA4 as a unit. 

If the blog post cost a total of $600 to produce and it generates 1,000 engaged sessions, you can calculate the cost of winning one unit of attention by dividing 1,000 by 600.

The answer—1.7—means every dollar spent on the post generated 1.7 units of attention. This can be compared to the ROA of other efforts to determine where your budget can generate the most attention.

Why you can’t ignore ROA

Gartner research found that B2B customers spend as little as 5% of the total time considering a purchase in communication with potential vendors. The bulk of the remaining time is spent on research. 

Buyers are spending less time communicating with potential vendors
Buyers are spending less time communicating with potential vendors pre-purchase

This research takes place early in the buying journey, as customers become aware of their need for a product and consider the options. 

Not all activity at this level is directly trackable. The dark funnel includes all of the channels where your audience might learn about you but your attribution software can’t track. Think direct messaging platforms like Slack, or podcasts. 

A meta analysis of studies placed the percentage of total shares on dark social channels as between 21% and 84%. This is a significant portion of your audience who, if acquired, are likely to be attributed to the wrong channel. 

When marketing to these people, return on investment is the wrong metric to measure success. This is partly because building awareness and affinity is more important than generating immediate revenue at the top of the funnel. It’s also because ROI is incompatible with the concept of the dark funnel. 

Dark Funnel Marketing Activity
Dark funnel marketing activity is practically impossible to track

In the example illustrated by the above diagram, ROI would attribute the conversion to organic search, but it was a LinkedIn post that started the chain of events. ROA would instead stop at measuring the unit of attention gained by the LinkedIn post. 

Since making customers aware of your brand first requires you to get their attention, ROA acts as a leading metric. It assesses how effectively your top-of-funnel advertising spend plants seeds that will later result in revenue.

With ROI as a measure, a campaign that didn’t convert customers would appear ineffective. However, that campaign might make 10,000 new potential customers aware of your brand or product. If 500 of those people convert at a later date through a different channel, the campaign was actually successful. 

This makes ROA a far more suitable metric to follow.

ROA vs ROE vs ROI vs ROAS: Choosing the best marketing metric

ROA offers an alternative to more traditional marketing metrics, including:

  • Return on engagement (ROE). ROE is like ROA, but measures engagement instead of attention captured. Engagement takes many forms. It could mean likes, shares, comments, direct messages, mentions, or hashtag uses. 
  • Return on investment (ROI). ROI is one of the most fundamental marketing metrics. It measures the revenue generated by a campaign per dollar spent. To calculate ROI, divide direct campaign revenue by the total cost of running the campaign and multiply the answer by 100. ROI is also often used to measure overall marketing profitability.
  • Return on ad spend (ROAS). ROAS is a metric used exclusively to measure the direct revenue performance of an ad campaign relative to budget spend. The ROAS formula is the same as ROI’s, but the only cost it factors in is ad spend. That makes it a poor indicator of profitability, which is impacted by other costs like labor. However, it is useful as a relative indicator of campaign performance.

Each of these metrics has unique strengths and weaknesses. ROI is essential when measuring the overall profitability of marketing, but it doesn’t explain how well your top-of-funnel channels are performing. 

ROE is a great indicator of social media content quality, but it doesn’t tell you the total non-engaged reach your content achieved. 

ROAS can help you to understand how well your campaigns are performing relative to each other, but lacks the context of broader costs. 

These shortfalls mean there’s no best metric to measure your digital marketing success. One might be best suited to your specific marketing funnel, but these metrics are most effective when used together. 

How ROA, ROE, and ROI can work together to boost marketing performance visibility

ROA, ROE, ROI, and ROAS all have their place in a typical marketing funnel. A combined, multi-metric approach works best to improve overall marketing performance visibility.

ROA measures the outright effectiveness of top-of-funnel marketing efforts that prioritize high reach and awareness-building. 

ROE indicates how well that reach actually impacted users—measuring the number of people who were compelled to engage. 

ROI is the final step, illuminating the performance of channels nearer the bottom of the funnel in converting leads into paying customers. 

ROAS fits in as an alternative to ROI. However, since its only unique use is to compare the performance of one ad campaign to another, there’s justification for avoiding it.

By using two or more metrics, applied to best fit the various channels that make up your marketing funnel, you can assess where your marketing is working and where it needs improvement.

How measuring ROA can transform your approach to marketing

Most businesses track marketing ROI. ROA is far less common, but its benefits can be transformational. 

Measuring ROA enables you to do the following.

Judge the efficacy of your top-of-funnel marketing

Using ROA as the primary metric for assessing top-of-funnel marketing is a better way of understanding its efficacy. 

Top-of-funnel campaigns don’t aim to convert customers. Capturing attention is their main objective. Replacing ROI with ROA as the primary metric for top-of-funnel marketing stops campaigns being judged against ill-fitting criteria. 

Liberate your marketing efforts from the ROI trap

Free from being evaluated on their revenue performance, top-of-funnel marketing can be tailored to focus exclusively on capturing attention. Campaigns can be oriented around delivering valuable information, appealing to emotions, or even being funny. 

These creative approaches are often more medium-appropriate, and therefore more effective. They prevent the need to include hard-sell CTAs on platforms poorly-suited to conversion, just to try and meet KPI goals.

Merge demand capture and demand creation strategies

Most marketing efforts aim to capture existing demand, not create it. This is partly because traditional attribution models can’t measure demand creation success. 

ROA works best for measuring demand creation marketing. This opens up the opportunity for a more comprehensive strategy merging demand capture and creation. In crowded markets, this can be a competitive edge.

A step-by-step guide to measuring ROA

ROA can boost your visibility of top-of-funnel marketing performance. How well it does so depends on the quality of implementation. 

To get the most from this metric, follow these steps:

Step 1: Decide your measurement criteria

There is no one-size-fits-all way of measuring ROA. Unlike ROI, the measurement criteria for ROA changes depending on where it’s deployed. Your first task, then, is to decide how you’ll determine what counts as attention for each channel you plan to use it on.

Some measurement criteria come easily. For videos, a single view naturally counts as a unit of attention. Other channels present more difficult choices. For organic Facebook, you could choose from reach, impressions, or page likes, for example. 

Decide with your marketing team what counts as a unit of attention for all of your channels. Make sure this stays consistent into the future so your data remains comparable. 

Step 2: Tailor creative and messaging to suit your ROA goals

You’re measuring the efficacy of your top-of-funnel marketing with a new KPI. This means your existing creative and messaging will need updating. If you previously used ROI as your primary metric, it’s likely your creative aims to drive conversions. 

Now that you have a better-suited measurement criteria, edit or completely overhaul your campaigns to suit. This may involve thinking of creative new approaches to capture attention and updating CTAs to nurture leads more softly. 

Consider how you can provide your audience with value. You could run a campaign that provides tips, or highlights sector news. Also think about where you want them to go next. Instead of having CTAs lead to a product page, you could funnel users into informative blog posts.

Message testing can help ensure that your new campaigns perform. Messaging has a greater chance of capturing attention if it resonates with the audience. Panel-based message testing solutions, like Wynter, put your new messaging in front of a highly-relevant test audience. 

Wynter Message Testing‍
Test your messaging with Wynter

The panel members provide the exact feedback you need, allowing you to make crucial edits before deployment.

Step 3: Deploy your campaigns and collect data

Deployment of ROA-focused campaigns is the same as with any campaign. The main consideration is setting up a comprehensive reporting system so you can monitor performance from day one. 

You might be tracking irregular metrics that aren’t easily gathered from your usual platforms. If so, consider using a solution like Google Data Studio or Zoho Analytics to create a custom reporting dashboard.

Step 4: Analyze the results and plan next steps

When your campaigns have run for a while and you’ve collected performance data, you can begin the gradual process of improvement. 

On the surface, the data will show you which campaigns captured most attention per dollar spent. By analyzing a level deeper, you can figure out what made them successful. 

Say an organic social campaign based on sharing sector news performed particularly well. Your instinct might be to redirect more budget there at the cost of another channel. However, it’s worth testing whether the same approach on a different channel would yield even greater results. 

Spend time implementing data-led strategic changes before you re-deploy your campaigns. Over time, this iterative approach will generate increasingly powerful results. 

How SaaS brands have captured attention at the top of the funnel with ROA-focused campaigns

ROA-focused marketing can be instrumental in creating demand and capturing existing demand. Some of the biggest B2B SaaS brands have deployed campaigns formulated to capture attention rather than directly drive conversions. 

Here are two top ROA campaign examples.

Mailchimp’s “Did you mean Mailchimp?”

Did you mean Mailchimp” is a notorious SaaS marketing campaign, winning three awards at Cannes Lions. It involved the creation of nine fake brands, each named to rhyme with “Mailchimp.”

Screenshot of Did you mean mailchimp campaign
Mailchimp’s Did you mean mailchimp campaign

These brands got websites, surreal short-films, songs, and even real consumable products. They made a genuine impact in their respective sectors, from fashion to snacks, supported by individual PR pushes. Each fake brand name searched in Google returned the result:

Screenshot of Did you mean mailchimp search result
Google search result page showing “Did you mean Mailchimp?” in the results

The campaign saw unprecedented success. It generated 988 million earned media impressions and 67 million organic searches. 

There was no substantial tie between the campaign and Mailchimp’s product, but that didn’t matter. The play was for attention and this campaign captured it. Awareness of Mailchimp’s brand sky-rocketed.

“Did you mean Mailchimp” is a particularly good case study of how marketing that isn’t assessed on its revenue performance can leverage the power of creativity to incredible effect.

Wistia’s “One, Ten, One Hundred”

Wistia took a less ambitious, more focused approach to attention-oriented marketing with their video series, “One, Ten, One Hundred.” It follows an ad agency as they attempt to create three commercials for $1,000, $10,000, and $100,000. 

Like Mailchimp’s campaign, there isn’t a direct link to Wistia’s product in the series. There isn’t a pitch in sight. 

Instead, the ad intended to be entertaining and interesting. It aimed to capture attention as content, not advertising.

The results were powerful, with the two trailers for the series getting over 2,200,000 views on YouTube alone. 

The series also won the Webby award for “Best Video Series.” This mass-market attention is valuable. However, it’s worth noting that the real strength of this campaign is that the content naturally appeals to Wistia’s B2B audience. 

Wistia admitted the series was developed specifically for in-house marketers who wanted to create great content but struggled with budget limitations. This focus might have limited the total amount of attention captured, but each unit of attention was more valuable.

Three top tips to improve ROA and grow your funnel

Measuring ROA as your core metric for relevant campaigns has unique benefits. Regardless, you should still strive to increase your marketing efficacy. 

These three tips will help you to create campaigns that capture more attention.

Keep things concise

ROA-focused marketing should prioritize having a near-immediate impact on the audience. Attention spans are short, so getting your message across as quickly and concisely as possible is essential

Conciseness also ensures that your messaging will be easily interpretable and understandable. This is critical on platforms saturated with information. 

Maximize messaging resonance

After conciseness, messaging resonance is the next most important factor in capturing attention. Concise messaging is easy to understand, but resonance is what ensures it makes an impact on your target audience. 

Resonant messaging cuts through noise, bridging the gap between reaching a user and eliciting a reaction. 

The core qualities of resonant messaging include:

  • Clarity
  • A focus on benefits
  • Engaging topic
  • Comprehensive message
  • Demonstrable expertise

You can use a message testing solution to analyze how well your messaging embodies these qualities. This allows you to fine-tune it before deploying your campaign, maximizing its results.

Use the right channels

Finally, remember that not all channels are appropriate for attention-focused marketing efforts. As you approach the bottom of the funnel, where audiences are closer to making a buying decision, ROA marketing isn’t as useful. 

Tailor your marketing instead to overcome customer objections, sell your benefits, and focus on driving conversions.

A new marketing metric to improve your results

At its core, the argument for using ROA is about knowing what you want from marketing. Practically every businesses’ marketing strategy involves attention-focused campaigns targeting users at the top-of-the funnel. But those who use ROI to measure its success will struggle to see the reality of its performance. 

ROA offers a new way of seeing things. It judges top-of-funnel marketing fairly, with full knowledge of its aims. This liberates marketers to run more creative, inspired, and effective campaigns. Most importantly, it gives them a way of measuring their success, which means they can work on improving it.

Know exactly what your buyers want and improve your messaging

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