At what point do you grab an audience’s attention? Is it in the first sentence of an article? Or the headline? Or the opening visual image on a page or screen? There’s plenty of research to show the answer to all those questions is “yes”. Which isn’t very helpful.
But with a slight change of perspective, there is another way you can look at attention. And changing your perspective will dramatically improve the amount of attention your content gets. It involves looking at content through the lens of four preconditions for attention: Novelty, Variety, Utility, and Stress.
Getting attention is important because you need it for engagement. If you don’t have an audience’s attention, they won’t read your content or slip into your sales funnel. But the problem is, audience attention is a scarce resource. We’re surrounded by distractions. Even as I type this, my watch is tapping on my wrist to alert me to an email. Push messages are appearing on my phone and tablet. I can hear the TV in another room. And an appliance in my kitchen is beeping at me. Everything seems to want my attention.
Excuse me while I go check the appliance in the kitchen. That could be important.
Attention and the gorilla in the room
The trick with getting attention is realising that your audience is an active participant in the process. In other words, the audience choose to give you attention.
Duh, you may say—of course they are active participants. But researching each member of an audience involves researching individual agency. You need a lot of them to draw general conclusions, and the bigger the audience, the more variables there are to account for.
Psychologists and neuroscientists have neatly sidestepped this problem by going small. They have shown us how attention works on a neurochemical level. They can theorise why that’s developed. That feeling you get when something catches your attention is from a release of dopamine into your prefrontal cortex. Humans have developed it as a survival mechanism to quickly recognise something unfamiliar in their environment.
Except … remember the Invisible Gorilla experiment? It was a bit of an internet sensation a decade ago. In a video, someone in a gorilla suit walked through a group of basketball players, and many people just didn’t see it happening. The phenomenon is called inattentional blindness and suggests that just busting some brand new, unfamiliar thing into an environment doesn’t guarantee attention. In fact, it has the opposite effect.
Studying visual attention also doesn’t account for how a newspaper headline can grab you. A headline in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS is hard to read and is generally nestled in a familiar design … but it can compel you to read it. How?
The myth of headline formulas
Research around the written word has been dominated in recent years by data scientists and marketers. Those marketers and data scientists have often run large scale A/B tests of headlines in a digital environment. The aim is to figure out a formula, or particular combination of words, that will result in greater engagement.
The result? For a while, it seemed every article published online was headed “How to …” or ended with “You’ll never guess what happened next …”
But anyone who’s ended up on a push notification list for the Daily Mail can tell you, those headlines quickly lose their power. That’s because the headline formulas are based on linguistic devices. They’re about how you structure your headline, rather than what the headline says.
So even if you can prove, through an A/B test of a million people, that a particular headline formula resulted in more clicks than a different headline formula, your proof only applies to that headline you studied. Because it’s physically impossible to study the other variables involved. All it is testing is the formula in use in a particular situation.
The formula for audience attention
So if studying the minutiae of attention is too complex, and the big picture is unrevealing, what’s left?
Luckily we have thousands of examples of content that does grab and keep attention. They are books, TV shows, movies, songs, magazines, fashion, paintings, and more. And the thing they all have in common is they meet the four preconditions for attention: Novelty, Variety, Utility, and Stress.
As many psychological studies have shown us, for something get attention, it has to be new. But there’s an important caveat to that—it needs to be new within a familiar setting. A familiar setting reduces the cognitive workload of recognising novelty.
Go back to that invisible gorilla experiment—the setting was six people, wearing a particular pattern of clothing, passing basketballs in a particular way. That would already be unfamiliar. Then, to bias their results, the video makers asked you to concentrate on the number of passes by one team. Nearly everything in there was unfamiliar.
Contrast watching that with watching an episode of Masterchef. Every episode of Masterchef is nearly the same as all the others. You know there’s going to be a cooking challenge. There’s going to be at least one chalky risotto/ undercooked chicken/ deflated soufflé. When a contestant admits they are in trouble, the screen always explodes into flame and feature the show’s logo. You know at the end of the episode, one contest will either gain an advantage, or else their “Masterchef journey will be over”.
Yet millions of people watch every episode of Masterchef. Because the novelty within that very strict format jumps out and engages them. That novelty may be the personality of an individual contestant. Or it may be the particular challenge. Or the ingredients. In that context, with a reduced cognitive load from all the other elements, novelty grabs attention and keeps it.
HOW DO YOU DO THAT: Ask yourself; is what I’m saying here new? Or am I saying it in a new way? If the answer to either is ‘no’, then reconsider saying it at all. If the answer to both is ‘yes’, then also reconsider. You can be ‘too’ new.
Back in the old days (pre-2020), when I used to be able to travel for work, I’d often turn the TV in my hotel room onto a 24-hour news channel. There’s something very comforting about the familiar cadences of a newsreader’s voice, the background grid of semi-populated newsrooms, and the staccato percussion of their theme music. But I don’t watch it.
It’s wallpaper. It’s white noise for when my jet-lagged brain jolts me awake at 2am. If I want to actively watch TV, I’ll flick through the various options. I’ll expect variety.
You don’t experience content in a vacuum. TV shows appear beside other TV show. Articles appear beside other articles. To make one stand out, it needs to be a little different. Where the formats are virtually indistinguishable—like with breakfast TV shows, for example—audiences choose one and rust onto it. The same could be said of evening news bulletins.
Variety of content increases your chance of attention and engagement because it gives audiences options. If they have chosen to spend their time watching TV or reading a magazine, a variety of content increases the chance that they’ll stay engaged.
HOW DO YOU DO THAT: Ask yourself; does this look like all the other articles on my site? If so, try presenting stories in different formats (ie: as a Q&A interview, or a picture essay, or a list)
People creating content often mix up utility and usefulness. But utility and usefulness are not the same. Usefulness is a general description of the application of ideas. Utility is a state of being. Which I know sounds a bit philosophical. Please bear with me.
Conflating usefulness and utility explains why ‘how-to’ articles are so common, especially in content marketing. Companies that have something to sell create ‘how-to’ articles where the solution to whatever problem they’re describing involves buying their product.
Utility however can only be prescribed by an audience member. So the utility of a great pop song, or an Archibald Prize-winning portrait, is in the release of serotonin in our brains. We as audience members actively seek out stories or songs or artworks we know we’ll love because of how they will make us feel.
When it comes to content marketing, utility tends to be interpreted as ‘educational’ content. Which is fine—but educational content works best when it has an emotional impact. When it offers you that “Ah-ha!” moment, that helps you solve a problem or learn something new. That feeling is the serotonin rush, that relaxes and pleases you.
That’s why Blendtec’s famous ‘Will it blend’ series of videos worked so well as content marketing. Not so much because it showed the usefulness of the Blendtec blender (although that was a key part of the narrative). It was the joy you got in watching some random dude blend an iPad. It was funny.
HOW DO YOU DO THAT: Ask yourself; what does this immediate piece of content do? Does it make you laugh? Can it tell you something you didn’t know? Will it have some emotional impact? If the only answer is “it leads people through my sales funnel”, then don’t waste your time publishing it.
This is the weirdest, but most important, precondition for sustained audience attention. Stress is the condition induced by a cliffhanger ending. It is the result of a surprise twist. In other words, it comes from the unexpected.
It’s the antithesis of most content marketing. Because marketers—especially big companies—don’t want you to feel any stress at all. They don’t want you to relate their brand with stress. Because stress is unpleasant. It’s a negative feeling.
But stress is also important for maintaining attention. If you know which Masterchef contestant is going to be eliminated from the competition that night, you have no reason to watch. When you’re sure that the iPad is going to blend, you don’t bother watching the Blendtec man destroy it. If the good guy is going to fall off the cliff, rather than clinging to the ledge, then the scene has no power.
Different art forms create stress, or tension, in different ways. Music does it through manipulating just tuning and the rules of harmony. Painting does it through texture, perspective and contrast. Stress is the result of the audience’s inability to predict what’s going to happen. And that inability keeps them glued to the content.
HOW DO YOU DO THAT: Of all the preconditions, this one is most dependent on technique. Writers do it within a sentence, or a paragraph, by setting up an expectation then undermining it. Filmmakers do it through the combination of music, lighting, camera angles and perspectives. Musicians do it by knowing which notes in a scale will create the right amount of tension with the tonic or root note. The more skilled you are in technique and the better you know your audience, the more stress you can create.
The sense check for attention
As a sense check for any piece of content you publish, ask yourself these four questions: Is it new? Is it different to the stuff around it? Is it educational, or entertaining, or both? And finally, does it surprise me?
If the answer to any of those questions is ‘no’, then it’s worth going back to the drawing board. Because with each precondition you ignore, you will lose some of your audience.
In the next article in this series, I’m going to write about stickiness—how you keep an audience’s attention in the awkward middle of a sales process.