I like watching new forms take shape. So when I was out walking the dog the other day I was surprised to see a new building site that I’d completely missed all the other times I walked past. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed this construction site before.
Why is it that we can all look at the same scenery or a movie and take away something entirely different? It’s because of our ability to pay attention to salient clues. That means we only pay attention to certain characteristics of objects or information. Psychologists have found people only pay attention to what they need for the task at hand. It’s much like my experience with the building site or the experience of buying a new car and then suddenly noticing the same car everywhere. In truth the car was there before but you just didn’t have it in your vision.
This got me thinking about why we give certain things attention and not others. This has implications for our work when we seek to gain people’s attention, both inside our business and outside. It’s written that awareness is the gatekeeper of attention. Awareness precedes attention. Until we know about something we can’t spot it.
The science behind attention
Attention refers to the way we focus on something at the expense of something else. If we’re not aware of something it’s very hard to pay attention to it.
There are two types of attention:
- Voluntary attention
- Reflexive attention
Voluntary attention is our ability to focus on something quite deliberately. Voluntary attention is more likely to happen when you have earned the trust of your audience. It’s further along the buying funnel.
Reflexive attention refers to the ability for something to grab our attention without our desire to focus on it. It’s reflexive attention that marketers want to achieve with the target audience. It’s the ability to poke the head of your message out from under the hypothetical noise blanket that smothers our attention.
Research shows that when we focus our attention we can completely miss other sights and sounds that would otherwise be obvious. In other words we see only what we want to see. It’s formally known as ‘inattentional blindness’. Researchers have shown that an ‘inattentional deafness’ also takes place when we concentrate on visual tasks; at these times we lose track of sound.
What this means is that when people are focused, they’re much harder to reach. So it would make sense that in a distracted, noisy environment that people are easier to connect to. This is surely the hope for any marketer. A brand in a noisy environment should be able to attract the attention of its target – right? Not so fast. Remember, the audience needs to be aware of you first before they give you their attention.
What about the ‘cocktail party’ effect?
Then there’s the research on the so called ‘cocktail party’ effect. It refers to our ability to focus on one conversation amidst the noise and chaos of the party. In 1953 British psychologist Colin Cherry showed we can only concentrate on one thing at a time. The anomaly to this is that we can pay attention to high priority information, such as hearing our own name called out, in a noisy environment even when we’re not actively listening for it.
To correlate this to our work, it means our client will hear we’re talking about them and hear our message no matter how noisy the context. That’s what we hope anyway. The real point is that our messages need to be centred on the client, not ourselves. This needs to be applied across all communications from your website copy to your proposals. The client/prospect is only ever concerned with ‘what’s in it for me?’.
Capacity of the human brain
It’s useful to know that our brains today are the same as those of our distant ancestors. What’s different is the stimuli we have to deal with today is more than our brains can take in. There’s no amount of willing that can change that. Life tens of thousands of years ago moved at a different pace, it was slower, quieter and less complicated. In this less complicated setting, the brain was on guard for anything different or out of the ordinary. Any extraordinary events indicated a threat was imminent. When your brain is ‘on’, it’s ready for anything and at the same time this brain state is using a lot of energy. It’s this energy that’s limited and fixed. As marketers, this is the brain we’re working with to make our audience notice what we have to offer.
- Human brains operate at low speeds of about 120 bits (~15 bytes) per second.
- It takes about 60 bits per second to pay attention to one person speaking
What can we learn from this understanding of attention?
For marketers, the trick is to optimise the use of our communication mediums to keep serving up the information you want people to notice. Leverage your channels to layer them in a way that appeals to your target market and enhances their buying experience. If you get the experience right you’ll have them paying attention which is the first step in the process.
He who shouts loudest doesn’t win. The trick isn’t to trick anyone into listening to your message. Given the cocktail party effect, it’s clear your clients will listen to you if you're talking about them. It’s back to marketing 101 – focus on the customer, fulfil the customer’s wants and needs and design the business around them.