Biz Tips: Capturing attention is an art. Maintaining it is all science.

Biz Tips: Capturing attention is an art. Maintaining it is all science.


Capturing attention is an art. Maintaining it is all science.

Illustrations courtesy of rawpixel / rocketpixelzivile_z

Are you still with me?

The English language is horribly peculiar. It has countless sayings which don’t make much sense, words which aren’t pronounced the way they’re spelled, and orthographic inconsistencies which make even native speakers recoil.

But there’s one phrase in particular which I want to draw attention to: that of attention itself. The phrase we use is “paying attention”. We ‘pay’ attention, as if it denotes some sort of transactional relationship. Payment implies that this process has a cost, and by proxy also some value.

Attention is such a well-studied and well-covered topic, that I don’t want to waste yours. Instead, I want to talk about how attention is captured and maintained, drawing on some of marketing and behavioural psychology’s most fascinating theories.

Cultivating and harvesting attention

The new tools of today’s marketers may make it easier to reach people, but they don’t guarantee they will pay attention. In The Attention Merchants (a book you should absolutely check out, by the way), author Tim Wu discusses the ways companies first need to cultivate and then harvest attention. Wu even refers to this phenomenon as the ‘attention industry’. Your attention is so unbelievably valuable to the FAANGs and their ilk, that they will fight tooth and nail to keep, steal and disrupt it at every potential opportunity. Companies have had to come up with new ways to get our attention, which is then commoditised and sold on to other companies. These days, our media consumption is no longer dictated by the ritualisms of huddling around a radio or TV at a certain hour. Instead, it is absolutely constant.

Mass media has begun to mediate so much more of our time, leading to an increase in sheer quantity of attention up for resale.

So valuable is our attention, that it has effectively been the building blocks for some of Silicon Valley’s most valuable digital companies. Facebook, for example, is interested in making your news feed as relevant and ‘sticky’ as possible so that your website dwell time increases, leading to your continued use of the platform and greater resulting exposure to ads. It’s fundamentally in the commercial interest of these companies to invest in technology and design that improves user experience and maintains their attention for greater periods of time.

Photo by Con Karampelas on Unsplash

Thus, in this sense, attention is not something that comes out of nothing, but rather from careful cultivation, the result of user experience and programming specifically designed to nurture and retain the eyeballs of its users.

‘Pre-suasion’ and front-loading attention

It’s no secret that one of my go-to authors in the field of marketing and psychology is Robert Cialdini. His work on the topics of persuasion and the psychology of influence was probably one of the main reasons I got into reading and writing about these topics. Cialdini is one of those authors to really shake up what we know and how we look at the game of persuasion, as well as that of attention — and how the two are inextricably linked.

In Influence, he identified 6 key principles of persuasion. While I won’t go into these in depth in this article, it’s worth digging into them in your own time. These principles can be utilised in the set-up to your interaction. For example, suggesting the idea of your authority on something beforehand will help focus attention on that attribute. Authority is especially good at grabbing and keeping our attention and the apparent expertise or authority of a person will cause us to pay more attention to them than others. In this way, the messenger is the message. Who’s doing the saying is what makes what they’re saying more powerful. This is partly caused by mental ‘laziness’ of the brain using heuristics in decision-making, which may cause us to blindly believe in the wisdom of experts and authority (and rarely challenge them). As such, influencing others can be improved by pre-selling one’s expertise or authority on the matter at hand. Cialdini calls this step before the act of actually trying to persuade ‘pre-suasion’.

Photo by Konstantina Marogianni on Unsplash

This unconscious priming can help us to ‘pre-frame’ a person to think in a certain way and, as such, can be used to the advantage of anybody interested in persuading others. The attention is front-loaded on the context of the interaction, which almost makes the act of persuasion secondary in importance and effectiveness. The way we interact with the world and other people is not neutral, but rather contingent on the context of the interaction itself.

The key about pre-suasion is driving attention in a certain direction in order to set up the person for persuasion.

System 1: opportunities and dangers

A common misconception in the sphere of marketing is that attention is a highly cognitively involved process, which relies on constant conscious thought to be effective. Traditional thinking about this is based on the idea that effective marketing and persuasion relies on deep cognitive processing to make people think about and remember the message (and the brand behind it).

Established theories about how advertising works (Robert Heath, WARC)

But I argue this is not necessarily the case. Kahnemann’s ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’ have taught us that the mind works through the interrelationship between two parallel but distinct thought-processing mechanisms. While, to a degree, deep mental involvement in attention can be effective for recall of messages, attention and persuasion can be highly effective when targeted towards the ‘fast thinking’ mental processes. This part of the mind — System 1 — is highly susceptible to emotional triggers, because it isn’t concerned with the slow, arduous process of thinking rationally.

Source: Research Live

Attention works at different levels, not just the conscious. It’s why marketing messages can be effective even when people are barely paying attention to them — those who are just ‘half thinking’. In fact, conscious focused attention towards marketing messages may actually have the reverse effect of ‘reactance’ whereby consumers may be more aware (in a negative way) that they are being marketed to.

“The human brain is metabolically expensive to operate, so it will try to save energy where it can.

It’s key, then, for marketers of all kinds to be cognizant of the value of targeting this low-involvement mental state. Messages that are processed at low levels of attention seep into the unconscious, eventually, though perhaps less tangibly having an effect on brand perception, consumer behaviour and buying choices (for more on this, see the ‘mere exposure effect’). That is not to say that messages aimed at the slow thinking brain are inferior to those targeted towards the fast thinking part, just that they are very different in how they capture and maintain attention. Research suggests that low-involvement processing can actually be more effective and efficient than its high-involvement counterpart.

The amount of information we are exposed to daily far exceeds our ability to process it. Attention, therefore, is a group of processes that selectively enhances our perception and processing of certain information over others.

Focusing attention (for the persuader’s benefit)

In a highly distracting, noisy world, the more you can influence what the person is focusing on and attentive to, the greater the likelihood of persuasion. An example of this is ‘single-chuted questions’, which prime your brain to think in a certain way. Compare “how happy are you?” to “how unhappy are you?”. In this sense biases can lurk in the questions themselves, diverting attention and thoughts toward a focal point chosen by the questioner.

Further to this, our mind has a habit of overemphasising the importance of what is currently relevant or front of mind. Saliency bias ensures that it isn’t always the most pertinent issue that influence us, but rather the most salient (that which captures the most attention). As a result, you don’t need to think about changing behaviour or beliefs so much as simply raising saliency (for more on this see Kahnemann’s “what you see is all there is”). Emotion is another powerful attention-grabbing tool. When something is emotionally charged, it is really good at drawing attention, preying on the quick-response, fast-thinking System 1 part of the brain. Emotional messages are so effective because of how easily our brain is able to relate them to concrete things in our lives — think about shock, surprise, awe.

The central theme here is this: by guiding their initial focus, it’s possible to influence your audience. In a way, it’s about ‘nudging’ your audience to think about something, having not actually changed the choices available to them.

The quest for attention goes on

It’s no secret that your attention and focus are one of the most valuable commodities of the digital age. Advertisers and publishers know this very well, which is how their commercial relationship has grown ever tighter and more complex as the web becomes more sophisticated and diverse.

To come full circle on that initial note on the idea of attention as a transaction — I do firmly believe there is a sort of tacit reciprocal relationship which occurs when we pay attention to something. In a perfect world, both the consumer and the advertiser benefit from this relationship. But this is seldom the case, as online content grapples, claws and struggles its way to grab that miniscule sliver of our time and thoughts. In a way, we’ve brought this upon ourselves. The desire for unending free online content has forced publishers to adopt the advertiser-funded model, where audiences are packaged up, bought and sold in an instant, their attention commoditised and made tangible, through fuzzy metrics like return on ad spend and view-through rates.

There’s certainly more to explore on this topic, but I’ll have to give my attention to that another time.

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Capturing attention is an art. Maintaining it is all science. was originally published in Marketing And Growth Hacking on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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