Do I have your attention?

Consumer attention should be the criteria on which we plan and assess our campaigns. Deirdre McGlashan explains the right approach to attention deficit disorder.

I don't know about you, but everything I own seems to be blinking or beeping at me these days, trying to get my attention. You’ve got mail. Meeting in 15 minutes. Meeting *was* 15 minutes ago. Time to drink water.

Attention is a truly scarce commodity in an age when our devices tell us where to go, how long it’ll take to get there and whether we should indeed be getting up from our desks a bit more often.

Unfortunately, our task as marketers is to get people’s attention but there’s only so much of it to go around. As Nobel Laureate Herbert A. Simon said way back in 1971: “…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the over-abundance of information sources that might consume it.”

Research tells us that this attention deficit is exacerbated when we try to multi-task. The problem is that we aren't actually able to multi-task. “Humans are not biologically wired to pay attention to more than one brain-consuming stimulus at once,” says developmental molecular biologist and research consultant John Medina.

What we’re actually doing is rapid serial tasking. And that process is not without consequences, studies show that people who are interrupted take 50% longer to complete the task. So, the more things we try to do at the same time, the longer it takes us to get things done.

And the news gets even worse. Retention also suffers when we multi-task. In 2006, three psychologists from UCLA did a study asking students to look at a series of flashcards with symbols on them and then to make predictions based on patterns they had recognised.

Some students were placed in a multi-tasking environment where they had to listen to low and high-pitched tones and count the high-pitched tones whilst doing the flashcard task.

All the students were equally competent at spotting patterns during the exercise, but, when the researchers followed up and asked more abstract questions about the patterns later, the students who did the exercise in the multi-tasking environment struggled to answer.

The challenge both as consumers and marketers is that we can’t slow things down. The fact is that we live in a multi-tasking environment. We have more and more things vying for our attention and we’re probably remembering less.

So if attention is a scarce commodity, we as marketers have to think about the economics of attention, about creating a fair exchange of value to earn a greater allocation of this precious resource.

This approach opens up a wealth of opportunities for brands. The opportunity to think about the whole communication system and consider not only all the permutations of how people can move through the system, but also why. What content moves them along, what fuels that system.

Clients often ask: “How long should my content be?” The answer – and I quote Nick Palmer, our head of content strategy – is: “As long as you have their attention.”

There is no single magic number – three, four, five seconds, long-form or short-form – it’s all good so long as it holds attention. It might be one second with an emoji. Two seconds with a tweet. Three seconds with an animated gif. Thirty seconds with a video. Seven minutes with an extended video or half an hour with a tutorial.

As the world speeds up we can help brands win by treating consumer attention like the limited resource it is. Our focus should be on making the brand the priority task for that moment.

First published on M&M Global, 16th February 2016.

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