I’ve long felt that advertising on social media – approaches like Facebook ads and even post “boosts” – were not an effective way to reach your audience. While Facebook makes it really easy for service providers and even casual users to launch a campaign, are the ads really grabbing the attention of the right people?

An absorbing article on attention (and a secret[ive] group devoted to exercising it) by Nathan Heller in today’s The New Yorker magazine introduces us to Mike Follett. Follett is the managing director of Lumen Research, which uses eye tracking to study user interaction with online ads.

By many measures, Follett said, one of the very worst advertising environments is social media: “People are scrolling so tremendously quickly, like on a slot machine in Vegas—is it any wonder no one actually looks at these ads?” One of the most valuable advertising spaces, according to his data, is next to long, absorbing articles from trusted publications.

I’ve long suspected exactly this. I admit, my suspicions have been based on my own behaviour and preferences. But even in a long, absorbing article from a trusted publication, a garish, flashing, or animated ad is going to provide unwanted distraction most of the time. What will work in this environment are ads that align with the approach of the rest of the content: those that provide some information, an intriguing question, or a compelling reason to seek more information.

The single example of social media advertising that I’ve found done well was a remarketing post done by harmonica.com back when it was the domain of JP Allen. I’d expressed interest by watching a few of JP’s YouTube videos and visiting the landing page for his harmonica lessons. Soon, I noticed Facebook posts from harmonica.com. Notably, these weren’t hard-sell, but more informational posts that introduced a technique or additional video that could be found in the course.

Back to Heller’s article:

“It turns out that attention to advertising is a function of attention to content,” [Follett] explained. A general schlock-ification of material may have helped create a mirage of shortening attention. “Maybe people do not have time to spend looking at a thirty-six-second ad—or maybe they just don’t do it on Facebook,” he went on. “So Facebook responds by developing new advertising products meant to work in five or six seconds.” The platforms, in this way, produce their own ecology of scarceness. “I don’t know if it’s chicken or egg,” he said.