5 Ways To Grab Your Customer’s Attention in a Distracted World

The cost of attention is the most dramatic business expense increase in the last 25 years

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Marketers in today’s always-connected, information-rich world face an enormous challenge: A consumer’s brain can hold only so much information before it becomes fatigued. A person’s attention span is unavoidably scarce, and with the explosion of information available in our hands every day through personal devices, mobile marketers are fighting big odds to reach and engage their audiences.

By definition, a limited resource has value, making it a currency. This economic concept, called attention economics, treats human attention as a scarce commodity because a person only has so much of it. Moreover, the more information that is available, the more expensive attention becomes.

With a passion for the economics of attention, Harvard Business School Associate Professor Thales Teixeira has conducted research and published findings on how to leverage this limited resource. He promotes a scientific rigor to allow for a dependable, repeatable process that helps marketers engage more effectively with their audiences. His studies have centered largely around on-air and online video ads, but his findings are relevant to capturing attention with omnichannel and retention marketing strategies and on consumers’ mobile phones, where attention is even more fragmented.

Teixeira has calculated the cost of attention to have jumped seven- to nine-fold in real terms since 1990, making it the most dramatic business expense increase in the last 25 years. The solution? Teixeira urges marketers to consider how they can capture attention in a cost effective way.

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How can marketers capture attention?

Marketers can either purchase or earn consumer attention. When marketers pay for advertising to appear, they have control over its message, location, and timing. Paid media is everywhere, of course, but perhaps the most familiar example is a TV commercial. Digital marketing introduces tons of new channels like Facebook newsfeed ads, paid search (SEM), and more.

On the other hand, 83% of consumers surveyed by Nielsen report that they trust friend and family recommendations, and 66% trust consumer opinions posted online. These are forms of earned media or marketing. The message, location, and timing of earned media are not controlled by marketers; it occurs when individuals or media like news organizations share their thoughts on a brand. A great example is the ALS ice bucket challenge. If consumers themselves are sharing information about a brand or organization, the brand has clearly captured their attention.

In his research, Teixeira considers two dimensions of attention: intensity and duration. While intensity is the quality of attention during a specified time, duration is the quantity. Both intensity and duration achieve higher impact with earned versus paid marketing.

To maximize earned marketing, Teixeira stresses two key ingredients:

  • High quality content: Valuable content to users. This content provides significant value either in the form of information or entertainment.
  • Effective distribution: Segmentation. This distribution reaches those customers who are most likely to share the marketing message.

(The marketing theory of niche plus heat details one of the effective ways to capture attention through targeted and personalized campaigns.)

Take a scientific approach

Teixeira advises marketers to take a scientific approach to the attention-capturing process. Like other channels of marketing, the repeatable process for mobile marketing is to capture and retain attention.

He has five tips to help marketers capture attention:

1. Avoid overly prominent branding

Through scientific research using infrared eye-tracking technology, Teixeira and his colleagues have consistently found that people don’t like to feel that they’re being persuaded. The viewer’s automatic, instinctive reaction is to pull back from brands with too prominent branding. Researchers observed that viewers consistently stop watching video ads at the moment in which brand logos appear on the screen. Moreover, longer brand exposures, bigger logos, and logos in the center of the screen all lead to reduced viewing. In their book Can’t Buy Me Like, Bob Garfield and Doug Levy summarize Teixeira’s findings: “This effect of branding avoidance is so strong that it seems to be incorporated into people’s subconscious—they are not aware of their own passive resistance to persuasion.”

So how can marketers successfully showcase their brands to capture attention? Teixeira promotes using “brand pulsing,” a method of unobtrusively weaving brand images throughout an ad. Doing this increases viewership by as much as 20%. Teixeira references a Coca-Cola “Happiness Factory ad as a successful execution of the “brand pulsing” concept, where brand images appear unobtrusively well over a dozen times, yet the images avoid overwhelming the viewer.

In a mobile marketing campaign, this strategy can be applied by giving most of the real estate of your messaging and creative to the value you’re offering to the customer—perhaps a discount sale or service—and keeping your brand to the sidelines. In some channels, this will be fairly easy: a push notification can include your brand’s logo so the consumer knows who’s sent the message, and perhaps there’s no need to repeat your brand name in the message text.

2. Immediately create a positive emotional feeling, such as joy

Marketers have understood the importance of emotion in marketing for years, and since today’s consumers have abundant access to a range of brands—and their competitors—a positive emotion is more important than ever to the conversion and retention process. Teixeira and his colleagues have found through emotion-induced engagement studies that when it comes to internet video ads, “Surprise and joy effectively concentrate attention and retain viewers.” Creating one of these emotions immediately will help keep viewer attention; it is most effective to create a sense of surprise, which is then quickly followed by joy.

And in today’s world of information overload, seconds count; delivering joy quickly to build engagement is critical to drive the digital sharing that will generate earned attention. People share brands and information to which they feel a positive connection. That means that a dramatic climax or surprise ending is no longer enough. Teixeira cites a Bud Light swear jar ad as a successful example of delivering surprise and then joy almost immediately.

Mobile channels can now take advantage of GIFs, a great format for building quick, emotional messages.

3. Build an emotional roller coaster

Teixeira found through his facial recognition research that, “Viewers are most likely to continue watching a digital video ad if they experience emotional ups and downs.” He relates this to the human process of adapting. A child, for example, who receives a full candy bar has noticeably fewer feelings of joy than a child who receives small pieces of the same candy bar in repeated increments. In other words, the novelty of having the full candy bar quickly wears off, making the feeling of pleasure short-lived.

In order to account for this adaptation, Teixeira urges marketers to provide joy and take it away… and then provide it back. “Videos that deliver constant levels of joy or surprise don’t engage viewers for very long. Advertisers need to build an emotional roller coaster,” Teixeira finds. Creating this cycle hooks viewers and increases their likelihood of paying attention. Once again, Teixeira highlights the Bud Light swear jar ad as successfully employing the emotional roller coaster concept.

4. Surprise consumers, but don’t shock them

While surprising viewers is good for gaining attention and engagement, Teixeira finds shocking them inhibits digital sharing.

According to Teixeira, 90% of viral ads are humor. There are two types of humor: pure and shocking. While “pure” humor triggers viewing and sharing, “shocking” humor only promotes viewing.

5. Target viewers who will share the message

People will share content, including advertising content, when it serves their own self-interest. “Consciously or not, the sender intends to gain ‘social capital’ in the process [of sharing content]. It is not just about content,” finds Teixeira, who goes on to discuss this concept as a viral advertising symbiosis. Viral advertising symbiosis exists when consumers and advertisers find content mutually beneficial. “It turns out that while getting people to watch an ad is all about emotion, getting them to share it is about the sender’s personality.”

Teixeira praises the widely successful Old Spice Twitter campaign as effectively providing self-interested consumers reason to share. So whether your consumers are forwarding your email to their friends, or talking up your recent in-app message that unveiled your cool new feature, they’re doing it because they know their friends will love it, and they enjoy feeling helpful and in-the-know.

Using these five tips to secure customer attention is the big first step in converting consumers to a brand’s products or services.

Convert attention into purchase behavior

So once marketers have a viewer’s attention, how do they persuade them to buy, download, or otherwise convert? Teixeira argues that effective attention to ad content leads to persuasion. If attention is retained, there is a high probability the information will be shared by consumers—in effect creating brand ambassadors who are excited to share your content within their social circles, generating earned marketing. And when this viral advertising symbiosis, as Teixeira calls it, exists, your earned marketing power will increase in a systematic, low cost way.

The gist

Because consumers have limited attention, marketers must make it valuable for consumers to interact with their mobile marketing efforts. Teixeira reminds marketers to be consumer-centric and to create content that serves the consumer first, and then the brand. Attention-grabbing marketing that inspires emotion and prompts consumers to share can become valuable experiences for the consumer.

Marketers can combine the repeatable rigor of a scientific approach with the understanding of human emotion uncovered in Teixeira’s research to create a successfully attention-grabbing earned marketing campaign.

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