What you need to know about attracting attention in a distracted world

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Customers are not goldfish

Could it really be true? In today’s world, where we simultaneously eat, tweet, email, and watch TV… have we lost the ability to focus on one thing at a time? Is our attention span really shorter than that of a goldfish?

The simple answer is…

Squirrel!! (Dug from the movie UP)

Origin of the 8-second attention span theory

In 2015, a division of Microsoft published a report about a study that had nothing to do with the attention spans of goldfish. Inside the report was this graphic:

according to this people had 12 seconds of attention in 2000 and 8 seconds in 2013. Goldfish have 9 seconds.

From that shaky start, the human-to-goldfish attention ratio made headlines in major publications including Time Magazine, The New York Times, and The Telegraph. It went on to become gospel on marketing blogs – heedless of the fact that it has been discredited and debunked.

So the idea that mankind’s attention span has been reduced to just 8 seconds was popularized by those of us for whom attention is currency: marketers.

Why the obsession with the 8-second-rule of attention?

What might explain this myth’s refusal to die like a carnival goldfish, is that it plays into the narrative that consumers are just so hard to reach these days.

Once upon a time, an advertiser could buy a 30-second spot on network TV and be assured of a large, captive audience. Today, that audience has splintered like a log in a wood chipper and savvy consumers are engaging in evasive behavior.

Escaping this advertising battleground is becoming one of the luxuries of the modern world. It’s why paid-for executive lounges at airports are free from noisy, garish adverts and why the removal of adverts is a key selling point for paid-for apps. – The Conversation, May 28, 2015

You see, the concern isn’t so much that the modern world has somehow damaged humanity’s ability to pay attention, but that people aren’t paying enough attention to advertising.

Let’s talk about attention

Attention is a funny thing. This video (from the excellent National Geographic series, Brain Games) demonstrates how paying attention isn’t nearly as straightforward as you might think.

In fact, you pay very little attention to the world around you. And that’s a good thing.

Your brain is exposed to an endless barrage of stimuli: sights, sounds, smells, thoughts, memories, itches, chills, squirrels, the list goes on. If Homo sapiens had not long ago evolved a built-in spam filter to limit what does get our attention and what doesn’t, we would have all wound up as lunch.

An aside about the science of attention (feel free to skip ahead if your attention is faltering)

Now, I love a quotable quote, a happening headline, and a snazzy statistic as much as the next marketer, but we do a disservice when we try to drill the science of attention down to three cute little balloon bubbles. It’s actually quite complicated.

The implications of attention research are also far more consequential than how to sell another widget. Figuring out exactly how the brain filters stimuli and focuses attention could lead to real help for people with genuine problems like ADD, ADHD, and even schizophrenia. So let’s all take a moment to appreciate just how complex our brains are and how important attention really is.

What marketers get wrong about attention

Too often, marketing aims to grab attention. That’s why we love to include movement in ads; we know the human brain will always pay attention to movement – it’s part of that whole not-becoming-lunch thing.

But how effective is that, really? If you catch something moving out of the corner of your eye, sure, you’re going to glance at it. But once you determine it’s not going to eat you, you look away (unless the marketer surprises you with something truly delightful, which is rare). You may even be annoyed at the distraction. So those mythical eight seconds of attention just dwindled to less than one.

Does that somehow prove people can’t pay attention?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been known to devote four straight hours of undivided attention to binge watching a favorite TV program or reading a great book. Which proves human beings (of which I’m one) are, indeed, capable of paying attention for an extended period of time – if we’re interested.

So when your customers are ignoring you, don’t blame it on some sort of technology-induced brain damage. Their brains are working exactly as designed – filtering out unimportant stimuli.

How marketers can earn attention

If you want to break through your customers’ natural spam filter, you have to earn their attention. Here’s how:

Get to know your audience

Yeah, I know, identifying your target audience is soooo marketing 101. You’ve got this down pat. But I want to remind you that these are people you’re targeting, not demographics. Never, ever lose sight of their humanity.

Make an investment

Great content – the kind that people love paying attention to – doesn’t fall out of thin air. You have to invest in it.

Be consistently amazing

If you develop a reputation for delivering something worthy of attention, people will be less inclined to ignore you.

Don’t be a hypocrite

If you wouldn’t appreciate it as a consumer, don’t do it as a marketer.

The key to great marketing is to remember it’s not about YOU!!! Stop whining that no one is paying attention to you. Why should anyone pay attention to you? Answer that and you’ll be on your way to a winning marketing strategy.


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