David BanksComment

The Science of Attention & Content Marketing

David BanksComment
The Science of Attention & Content Marketing

People like photos but share words. And each photo and story should give people several different things to like or one very penetrative thing to appreciate deeply. The idea here being that someone might like a smiling face, a location, an activity, an emotion, a color, and the more likable things you can weave into your visual cue, the better chance you have at pausing someone long enough to read your words. Words then broaden our stories. This is what links our messaging to the personal stories of others.

That makes it even more interesting to digital marketers, with attention being that thing that we all crave and consciousness being that thing we all want to weave ourselves into.

These are nice little quips to have in your back pocket when you are putting together your social media calendar or when you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about around the water cooler. But they also tie into the larger field of study around attention and consciousness. And that makes it even more interesting to digital marketers, with attention being that thing that we all crave and consciousness being that thing we all want to weave ourselves into.

Neuroscientists, who from here on will be referred to as the collective “they,” tell us there are two types of attention we need to understand: bottom-up attention and top-down attention. Bottom-up attention refers to all those external things going on around us that we were never really intending to think about but still grabbed our attention. Top-down attention refers to attention that is originated by our internal search (e.g., I want to find directions to the nearest Chipotle, so I pay attention to everything looks like it might get me closer to a burrito).

Bottom-Up Attention

Bottom-up attention is where most of us marketers live. No one is really looking for us, but oh how much we want to be seen.

Bottom-up attention is where most of us marketers live. No one is really looking for us, but oh how much we want to be seen. They tell us that bottom-up attention is allocated to the most salient stimulus that triggers the strongest neural activity in our visual field. Neural activity (i.e., brain stuff) is vetted by several different sections of the brain. They call this the global workspace. When external stimuli vie for our attention, their features get processed throughout the different parts of our global workspace. I see this like a NASCAR pit stop. A stimulus rolls into our visual field and our global workspace jumps into action like pit stop mechanics: “You check the color – do we like it? You, what is the shape doing for you?  You over there, is this thing odd or interesting? Should we get some more info or are we over it?”

Once a stimulus goes through our pit stop (i.e., global workspace), our minds will either pay attention to it or not.

This is where a lot of us marketers get excited and stop reading. From what they tell us, we can gleam some pretty clear marching orders: make things bright and shiny, weird and abnormal and people wont be able to help themselves from paying attention to us. Well, as it turns out, we’ve already tried that and quite a bit. We tried the bright web banners, the bouncing ads, the pulsating CTAs, and they worked for about three days. After that long weekend, people realized that obnoxious things don’t warrant attention. This brings us to another function of our brains – attention filtering. 

When we use non-value-adding antics in our marketing, we eventual condition our viewers to disregard them instantly.

The first couples times our minds say, oh hey look at that bright and shiny thing, but then attention filtering comes in and says, now remember the last time you clicked on that bright and shiny thing and it took you down a black hole of vaguely related content, incessant pop-up ads and now your computer has a virus? Oh yeah, thanks attention filtering. Get out of here bright and shiny, I’m not putting up with your antics anymore.

Bright and shiny is the lowest common denominator for attention grabbing. That’s why we all did it for so long. But now we have to go a little bit deeper in our quest for attention – quality engagement. This means we have to be more conscious of the entirety of our messaging – the visual packaging, the language cadence, and most importantly, individual relevancy. 

Mass engagement is no longer a thing - at least not with the same message.

This ties into something else they tell us. Attention is not only determined by saliency, but also by relevancy to a person’s current goals. This is where we see some overlap between bottom-up attention and top-down attention.

Making Things Relevant Makes Things Interesting

Attention relevancy does two really important things for us. First of all, it tailors the saliency of our stimulus. For instance, when they do tests on this type of stuff, they throw a lot of different stimuli into someone’s visual field to create immense clutter and distraction. Usually the person doesn’t register that much of the noise, until they see something like, say, their name. We all know our names, and we all also know a litany of things that are of interest to us. We as marketer have to figure our what it is that calls our audience’s names and craft our marketing around it. In the sea of content marketing, ads, social, etc, people are going to pay attention to the ones that call out to them specifically.

Relevancy also ensures each attention engagement positively contributes to brand building.

Relevancy also ensures each attention engagement positively contributes to brand building. This is in the form of brand bias. For instance, remember how attention filtering told bright and shiny to get out of here? Well, in the world of marketing, that negative filtering is now associated with the brand that pushed out the stimulus. This creates a negative brand bias. So whenever someone sees content from a certain brand, no matter how tempting it is to click on, that negative brand bias will remind us – they did you wrong. You’re better than them.

However, this means we can also create positive brand bias, but only when we think beyond just grabbing attention. After we have someone’s attention, we have to be able to keep it. We do this by fulfilling on the promise we gave them in the CTA by providing a quality experience. If we just focus on the click, we might be able to improve our click-through rates for a bit. But once people build that negative brand bias for us, those rates will plummet. So we have to think beyond the click from the very beginning. That way, everyone who clicks on our content once, will most likely click again. That’s how you scale. That’s how everyone leaves happy.