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Get the attention you're already paying for

Get the attention you're already paying for Joseph Carrabis

I was recently talking about the increasing number of distractions people deal with on a daily basis and how this affects the marketing and ad placement landscape. How do you create environments that focus the attention of the viewer so that they start single-tasking and consume only one media channel?

Or more directly: How do you get people to pay attention to what you want them to pay attention to?

Let me give you some marketing variations on this question: You pay for a banner ad but nobody looks at it. Not only do they not look at it, they outright ignore it. To them, it doesn't exist. What did you spend your money on then? Or you purchase a 30-second television spot in highly targeted markets and your numbers show sales are falling in those same markets. Forget sales, your numbers show that brand recognition is decreasing in those markets. Wha' happened?

Both of the above scenarios are examples of answering this question incorrectly.

Answering the question correctly involves attention studies, consciousness studies, cultural-emotional conditioning, goal versus stimulus psychologies, language studies, memory studies, neurobiology, self-awareness, self-perception, semantics, sensory phenomenology, social behaviors, social networking theory, volition studies and vision studies.

I've written about marketing principles that fall from these studies before. Interested readers can find a complete bibliography on my BizMediaScience blog.

But this column is going to explore what's going on when people don't pay attention and what you can do about it. We're going to begin with a review of topics dealing with attention. Next we'll show some attention-getting techniques that don't work and some that do. Our next to last stop will be suggestions for getting attention on the web. We'll close with a review for you to carry forward.

The brain lets the mind know where to focus its attention
The brain has evolved some elaborate cross sensory-attention functions that most people don't know about and that are still very active in the brain's wiring. When we can't see what we're reaching for, we focus our hearing on it. Why? Do we expect the TV remote that got kicked under the couch to say "Oh, I'm over here!"?

No, not really, but our ancestors did expect to hear snakes hissing or rattling, the scuttling of spiders, or the nervous twitching of some predator's tail as they reached into shadowy leaves for some choice fruit or walked into a darkened glade for a tender morsel.

Most of our ancestors' predators favored the dark, only revealing themselves when they (the predator) thought it was too late for our ancestors to act. The result? We listen for what we can't see. Obvious, yes, and most people don't think of it until you state it.

One of my favorite cross sensory-attention functions is that of taste, smell and hearing. Our ancestors tended to want to sleep after a meal (I still do). The senses of taste and smell were no longer necessary and the eyes were closing. The sense of touch? Nice, but by the time your sense of touch told you there was a problem it was usually too late. What's left? Hearing.

Humans as a species haven't evolved enough for these systems to go the way of the appendix. In fact, it's only been since the industrial revolution and the rise of a recognizable middle class that we stopped using these cross sensory-attention systems on a daily, hourly basis. But they're still with us. Recognizing their purpose and how they function is important to getting the attention you're paying for.

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Where the seeds of attention grow
What we get from the previous sections is that whatever gets our attention doesn't get our attention until the brain lets it. It is here that you need to remember that humans were a prey species for most of our evolutionary history. The fact that we were a prey species for most of our evolutionary history means everything was getting our attention. For example, there was no filtering mechanism attaching survival relevance to information, and we were ready for fight or flight at every sound, every touch, and everything that came into our visual field.

The brain-mind has a vast surplus of these old attention skills that haven't quite become new attention skills yet and are what some people mistakenly call the "sub-conscious." It is more correctly "non-conscious" because the brain-mind system (to use a modern metaphor) places lots of information in a buffer -- an online storage area -- for further evaluation but at a different level of awareness or attention, and processes it at a level we're not aware of, hence "non-conscious."

This buffer works like this: The brain throws things in there tagged with various levels of importance. The mind goes through them and says, "Yeah, yeah, okay, good, good, not important, okay, yeah, not important, good, no, okay, not important ...," and we recognize the "yeah", "okay" and "good" as things that get our attention. This analysis of the buffer has to occur non-consciously because it would take far too much time to perform this evaluation at the conscious level.

So we need to explore this buffer to figure out how the brain places things in and how the mind takes things out. More to the point: what get's people's attention, how and why?

Putting the pieces together
Simultaneous media and multi-media (what NextStage calls media rich) environments require the brain-mind system to allocate the buffer contents differently. Media rich environments are the modern equivalent of walking through a forest with your tribe, your bow drawn and arrow ready to kill predator or prey while deciding if those tubers coming up on the left are edible while listening for movement in the brush or trees while listening to your children and elders while...

Media rich environments don't have the survival element of the above described scenario, but the brain -- that wonderfully wired brain -- disagrees. The mind knows the TV, the stereo, the computer, the newspaper, the dog and cat, and the kids aren't going to thrust us into an immediate life or death situation. The brain knows only life and death as a fact because it's been that way for several million years. How else could it be and why change now?

The brain-mind system doesn't understand media rich environments so it translates these environments into what it does understand: walking in the forest. It's been good at walking in forests for millions of years, and to the brain, a media rich environment has similar qualities. The brain essentially decides it knows how to deal with what's going on and sends the mind a "Don't worry, I've got a lock on this. You can relax," signal.

What the brain-mind does understand via this translation is known in neuroscience as multi-modal environments. It is this recognition of the multi-modal environment that allows the brain-mind system to force a different allocation of buffer storage in media rich environments. This translation to multi-modal means you can make one of those cross sensory-attention systems send a message that will be recognized as important, specifically, important enough for the mind to take it as meaningful in the current situation and focus attention on it.

Waving my hands to be heard, whispering to be seen
People in our offices and clients are often amused that I'll raise my hand in the middle of a discussion in order to be heard. In business meetings where everyone's attention is focused on the presenter or a slide, I'll sotto vocé something and everyone will turn to me, "What was that, Joseph?" There are lots of tricks along these lines that effectively tweak the multi-modal recognition filters to pass information through the buffer system to get the mind's attention.

And there's more. People aren't irritated when I wave my hand or whisper something. Quite the opposite, usually. Tension leaves. This is because the multi-modal system was designed to keep us safe and alive. Waving my hand and whispering signals the cross sensory-attention systems in a non-threatening way.

Most websites -- especially Web 2.0, RIA and rich media sites -- haven't learned how to be non-threatening. One of the things that happens in media rich environments is that our multi-modal system is constantly accelerating us and decelerating us, giving us a little adrenaline then taking it away, because it's designed for survival and is now left recognizing nothing it's alerting us to is a threat. In fact, most of what it's alerting us to is an irritation, something we didn't come to a site to do.

figure 7

figure 8

Getting attention you don't want
Figures 7 and 8 are examples of creating tension where none need exist; the visitor is thwarted from doing what they came to do. Ouch! Do realize this isn't a problem on all sites or with all audiences. As in all things, the better you know your audience, the better you'll be able to use and place ad content to both their and your advantage.

In most cases, attention getters such as those shown in figures 7 and 8 aren't optimally placed, designed or executed. Slight changes and the response to these things would skyrocket. Instead, the true target audience responds to them as irritations. How do people usually respond to something that's irritating and bothering them? With stress, usually demonstrated by either leaving the site or closing the offending offer.

figure 9

figure 10

The other option is to deal incongruously with online questionnaires such as shown in figures 9 and 10. Incongruous responses are fairly easy to weed out; it simply costs money to do so. The responses that remain aren't coming from your target audience, though. I explained in Intrusive Little Windows or "DeBranding Made Easy" that visitors responding to these types of questionnaires aren't in a conversion mindset, so don't expect to learn how to convert them by asking them any questions.

Getting attention without increasing stress on a web page is much easier than most people might think. Unfortunately, the companies currently doing things properly aren't the ones placing ads on web pages or creating ad delivery technologies.

Let's consider some examples. Remember that these ads, like spam, are often annoying and yet must be effective. They are "annoying" because people most often speak disparagingly about them. They "must be effective" because they are still being used. This is spam with higher production value but with the same basic agenda. Spam floods your inbox and most people despise it. However, if somebody somewhere wasn't buying what's offered in the spam emails, they'd stop in a heartbeat. Therefore, they're effective enough that they continue.

That offered, let's consider some advertising delivery technologies that are basically spam with higher production value.

figure 1

figure 2

figure 3

Blinding you with science
Consider figures 1-3. You've just entered a website and before anything else loads you see figure 1. You're being asked for an account number. A few moments later the image changes to figure 2, another request for an account number. This is followed by figure 3, at which point most people begin to think, "What?"

figure 5 before

figure 5 after

figure 6 before

figure 6 after

These figures are more examples of this concept. This approach is either correct or incorrect depending on the business purpose of your site.

These types of ads literally get in the way of what your higher-level cognitive functions are doing. If the purpose of your site is to drive people to other sites, the examples in figures 1-3 and 5-6 are excellent. If, on the other hand, the purpose of your site is to keep people actively engaged, all that will pass into the consciousness of the majority of website visitors is annoyance and irritation.

Let me first remind you that these ads are getting some kind of desired response. If they weren't, they wouldn't be there. Let me next offer that they are not getting anywhere near the response they could be getting because they're disobeying three rules of the multi-modal system, and these three rules are encased in the "waving my hand to be heard, whispering to be seen" concept.

Here is the concept, bigger than life, so you can pay attention:

Ask for their attention by
Getting their attention in a way they're not
Using their attention

Want an example? Easy to provide. Before the increased font and bold of the above, I wrote: "Here is the concept, bigger than life, so you can pay attention."

This is known as priming.
I was preparing you, the reader, for something.

  1. I primed you by telling you where it was in time and space ("Here is the concept"). This demonstrates a trust relationship between advertiser (me) and prospect (you). Letting you know ahead of time that I'm going to present something to you gives you more freedom in the relationship. By giving you more freedom and displaying trust, I've essentially used the multi-modal buffer system to ask for your attention.

  2. I further primed you by writing "bigger than life." This time the priming involved preparing you for what came next so as to further cement the trust relationship. For example, I don't want to shock, annoy or irritate you with something (bold text, large font) you're not prepared for, so by priming you for what I'm going to do I'm getting your attention.

  3. Lastly, I wrote "so you can pay attention." Did you think you were already paying attention simply because you were reading this? Quite correct, you were. More correctly, you were paying attention with certain parts of your mind that you normally use for reading and internalizing information in iMedia columns. The "so you can pay attention" phrase basically told your brain-mind system that it needed to pay attention differently and devote some other and additional resources to the task. Your higher level cognitive resources were already engaged in reading the column, so your multi-modal system kicked in and said, "What else do I have I can throw at this?" and placed cross sensory-attention systems that weren't being used at the bold text above. The message has gone in and gone in deep. You can remember "Ask-Get-Use" because it's simple and direct. It allows you to cooperate with your prospects, something they'll respond to thousand-fold.

Now let me show an example of this done in a way most everyone is familiar with.

figure 4

The first thing you'll notice is that I live and die by my spellchecker. The next thing you'll notice is the email notification box in the lower right of the screen.

Not advertising, you say? I disagree. My email client is advertising the latest and greatest products it has available for my consumption: new emails. That box pops up for a few seconds when new emails come, and if I don't click on anything in it, it fades away.

I shared a lot of information in the last two paragraphs. Let's break it down to make it easier to follow.

  1. Most people's cognitive (higher-level) attention goes to the center of the screen. My spelling error is probably the first thing most viewers are cognitively aware of.

  2. My email client's advertisement isn't interfering with what the higher-level attention is focused on. It's out of the way and, if not acted upon, goes away.

  3. And because of Ask-Get-Use -- it asks for my attention by getting my attention in a way I'm not using my attention -- I pay attention to it with available resources in that multi-modal buffer. More exactingly, I pay just enough attention to it so that I can recognize and remember what's there, act upon or store the information for later recall, all without interfering with the rest of what my mind is devoting itself to, which is writing up this article.

Whispering to be seen, waving to be heard
Let me give you some Ask-Get-Use examples of ways to do this so as to get a response from a much larger audience, promote positive brand image, win friends and influence people. You're going to learn a little about working with the multi-modal filtering system and you'll do fine because it's actually very easy to do.

Let's start with whispering to be seen. Take a banner ad, any banner ad. Remove all the images and instead use a slowly scrolling text. Ad an audio component. The audio component is a voice over of the ad's target audience reading the words that are scrolling across the ad. The message must be simple, clean, neat and most importantly, it must tell a story that is actionable at its conclusion. The audio must be delivered at half to two-thirds the volume of whatever the user's computer volume is set at.

Most people set their computer speaker volume at a comfortable level for the various sounds they've selected to alert them -- get their attention without interfering with their current task -- that email has arrived, a news alert is available, they're being IMed, or some such.

Did you notice that without having to read through this article or know anything about the sciences involved, people are already creating environments where they're letting their multi-modal filtering system do some work?

By passing new auditory information to the site visitor at a level just below their self-selected comfort level, you've alerted their multi-modal system to pay attention with systems not already "online." This request is passed up through the multi-modal buffer to consciousness, and visitors scan the page to determine what's getting their attention. The scrolling text that is being read by the target audience's surrogate voice synchronizes multi-modal buffer and higher cognitive functions -- non-conscious and conscious resources -- onto the ad.

Stating the same in as few words as possible, you Asked for their attention by Getting their attention in a way they weren't Use-ing their attention. The end result is that they self-selected to pay attention to your ad. You didn't intrude, annoy or irritate. They gave you what you wanted because the website visitor didn't consciously know what you were doing, but that multi-modal buffer did.

Now let's wave our hands to get heard. Use a tower or rectangular ad with an animated image of a text-based "Did you know...?" This text is animated enough to demonstrate lateral (not vertical) movement without blurring the text or making it difficult to read. To the right of this text is an image of a target audience surrogate staring either a) out of the screen at the site visitor or b) at the oscillating text, shaking their head, no. Whether you use "a" or "b" depends on what you're advertising and to whom.

When the tower or rectangle is moused over, the surrogate shifts to the left of the ad and the product or service is showed on the right. Now the surrogate's gaze is focused on the solution area of the ad and they're visibly nodding with approval.

The first thing to remember when getting the attention you're paying for is Ask-Get-Use -- Ask for their attention by getting their attention in a way they're not using their attention. This is paramount. Getting someone's attention by hitting them over the head is no way to win friends and influence people. Oh, you'll win and influence a few, but they'll be neither your real target or your optimal numbers.

However, the Ask-Get-Use paradigm allows the prospect to willingly participate in the advertising process because you're using their own brain-mind system's to both get and keep their attention where you want it.

Many and deep thanks to Susan Carrabis and Siusaidh McRae for helping in the writing of this paper, and to Kevin McBride for the the data collection, storage and interrogation system used in this research.

Joseph Carrabis is CRO and founder of NextStage Evolution and NextStage Global and founder of KnowledgeNH and NH Business Development Network. He was recently selected as a senior research fellow and board advisor for the Society for New Communications Research. Read full bio.

Joseph Carrabis is Founder and CRO of The NextStage Companies, NextStage Global and NextStage Analytics, companies that specialize in helping clients improve their marketing efforts and understand customer behavior. He's also applied neuroscience,...

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