Why attention elasticity is the biggest issue facing marketers

We know that time is finite... but what about consumer attention?
11 November 2019
Jason Burby

Chief Client Officer, Wunderman Thompson, North America

Stephen DiMarco

Chief Digital Officer, Insights Division, North America

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As marketers, we’re taught that we need to stand out. We need to capture an audience’s attention with messages across multiple channels and guide them down the funnel towards a checkout, repeat purchases, and, ultimately, loyalty. In today’s terribly noisy ecosystem, that’s easier said than done.

Consumers are confronted with an endless number of stories from around the world. Trade wars, gun violence, election tampering, and impeachment are topics du jour. As marketers, we add to this cavalcade of content, looking to hang a marketing message on every consumer touchpoint we can identify.

The current dynamic begs the question: do humans have an infinite capacity for processing this growing noise? We know that time is finite (at least as we experience it); what we need to determine is whether consumer attention is as well.

This is an existential issue facing marketers. If consumer attention is capped, then we need to treat it more preciously. Indeed, if there is a threshold on consumers’ ability to effectively process information (pay attention), marketing will become a zero-sum game in which some brands will be winners and the rest won’t register. Worse, brands vying for attention and the sales that follow may fall into the trap of “advertising as interruption,” which is already eroding consumer trust.

Classifying this as an existential dilemma is not overreaching. In order for brands to thrive in the future, they can’t simply exist as they have in the past. Brands that win must play a more active role in more aspects of consumers’ lives: in advertising, on the retail shelf, and in our daily regimen. Consciously. Prominently. Relevantly.

Let’s take a step back and put on our lab coats. To solve for this, we need to better understand the fundamental functioning of the human brain. And for that, we can turn to the field of neuroscience to gain insight into the tug-of-war between infinite content and finite time with our attention span, an innate process within our brains, as the middleman.

With our head mirrors on, let’s apply the most relevant insights from neuroscience studies to marketing and, specifically, advertising. Armed with the following three interdependent findings, we are hopeful that marketers can resolve the very challenges that they are creating.

1. While time is finite, our brains can expand.

The universe is expanding, so why can’t our minds?

Studies conducted into neuroplasticity, our ability to create new neural pathways and neurons, show that the human brain can indeed increase its capacity to process information. This expansion has been linked to activities like alternate day fasting, engaging in art and travel, and even new physical movement (note, these are in stark contrast to dopamine bursts we receive from social media apps). All serve to introduce new, disruptive experiences to the brain, requiring it to learn and expand. The message for marketers? Effective experiential marketing can increase the opportunity for attention likely better than advertising.

2. Distraction, not time, is the arbiter of attention

Recently, neuroscientists from MIT have pinpointed the area in the brain that suppresses distracting and irrelevant inputs.

Prior theory held that the cortex served as the gateway for attention, however, this new research shows that the thalamus and the basil ganglia play prominent roles in the circuitry. According to Duje Tadin of the University of Rochester, “Before attention gets to do its job, there’s already a lot of pruning of information.” Our brains are built to suppress non-critical information, creating time for us to think and react to what is truly important. Despite our best efforts, most marketing messages and touchpoints are similarly pruned before consumers even notice them.

How do advertisers make the cut? If you think about the ad campaigns that have stuck in your head over the years, they’re almost always messages that hit you where you weren’t expecting, ads that don’t feel like ads. Ads that made you cry or laugh or think about an old friend. Those messages come from bold creative efforts that push the edges of our understanding of what an ad should be. Now, more than ever, creativity makes you memorable.

3. Small signals register more prominently than loud noises

In media environments as cluttered as Times Square, how can marketers break through and be noticed?

Neuroscience has shown, perhaps counterintuitively, that smaller objects with subtle, distinct movements seize our attention more than larger, recognisable objects. In fact, large objects are subconsciously relegated to the background. This is a function of predictive coding, which occurs when a stimulus follows a pattern that our brains are not able to predict, thus requiring additional attention to understand. In other words, newness takes precedence over loudness, focusing our brains on tiny, important signals. For marketers, this dynamic stresses the importance of differentiation and salience in advertising, challenging the status quo, and avoiding safe decisions.

Neuroscience is paving the way for a deeper human understanding that can elevate the relationship between marketers and consumers. Cognitive research has shown that our brain capacity can increase and our attention can expand, governed by alternating processes where our brain shines the spotlight on one signal, while quickly relegating others to the background. Without these processes, human beings would not be able to survive.

How we, as marketers, choose to adapt with our new, modern environment will determine which brands survive. And, don’t forget, as much as we need to leverage science to help us build modern marketing strategies, these new concepts must work hand-in-hand with what got us all here in the first place. We still need to transform our organisations to bring out the best of modern creativity. Bold creative, tied to a new understanding our audience, is the key to unlocking the consumer attention we all seek.

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