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7 Tips From Author Ben Parr’s “Captivology” On Grabbing Digital Attention

Ben Parr

(Forbes) – So you have written a groundbreaking story complete with the best headline, photo, video, SEO keywords. You Facebook-Tweet-Instagram-Pinterest-Snapchat it to your audiences. Then, after all that intensive work, analytics bring up only 30 clicks… and three retweets.

Maybe you are a journalist looking to gain more traffic for his or her stories? Maybe you are a news organization that is considering how to engage audiences and readership more broadly? Maybe you’re a new startup looking to gain attention and disrupt an industry? Or perhaps you are a big business looking to expand your market share with a brand or product?

In today’s information-overloaded society, attention is the modern currency, says Ben Parr, author of new book Captivology. And since getting that attention is rare and elusive, Parr decided to delve into the deep science of attention, talking with experts on how  and why our minds pay heed to some events or people instead of others.

In a keynote speech recently in New York City, Parr, a co-founder of Dominate Fund and a former editor at Mashable, shared key findings on how to leverage credibility and capture an audience’s attention. Speaking to a crowd of start-up entrepreneurs, brand marketers and technologists, Parr revealed three stages of attention (immediate, short, long) and these seven attention triggers.

1. Automaticity

According to Parr, for immediate attention, “use the right colors for the job.” Blue and teal scores highest for competency while yellow and orange are lowest. (Notice how Parr wore blue for the event and his book cover has teal.)

2. Framing

In the Victorian age, people had two mental frames when thinking about the taboo subject of deodorants: 1) They were dangerous, plus 2) You don’t talk about body fluids in public. Then this advertisement appeared in Ladies Home Journal in 1919.

Deodorant brand Odorono used aggressive campaigns to start women thinking about how they are “social outcasts”, failing at romance unless they use Odorono. Sales soared.

Getting attention means relating to your audience’s existing frame of reference and reframing the conversation to change people’s perceptions. For example, stories of economic scarcity – of oil, of money, of music, of honeybees – makes us pay attention.

3. Disruption

Bizarre, quirky, out-of-place information draws attention. The advertising industry knows this well. Think quirky characters from the Jolly Green Giant to the car insurance pitchman in the form of a Gecko.

But, disruptive messages must match one’s brand values. If not, disruption can turn disastrous like fast food chain Quiznos’ Spongmonkeys campaign featuring singing-dancing rodents with its sandwiches. The “deformed rats” made these lists: Time Magazine’s Top 10 Creepiest Product Mascots, website Consumerist’s Worst Ad in America 2010.

4. Reward

The neurotransmitter dopamine signals rewards, influencing our sense of want. Extrinsic rewards of food, sex, drugs, money trigger short attention. For sustained long attention, use intrinsic rewards like fulfillment, sense of purpose. So, surprising rewards and surprising people with rewards gets attention, creates motivation. Marketers are realizing the strength in brands such as Toms Shoes, Patagonia and Chipotle that are connecting with citizens on a values and purpose level.

5. Reputation

Directed deference is our tendency to believe experts, authority figures or the crowd. Aristotle identified this as “Ethos” in his Art of Rhetoric. Ethos is a person’s credibility, their legitimacy, their authority. When an audience senses ethos is present, they listen.

Besides citing the 2014 Edelman Trust Barometer study (above) where academics and experts consistently emerged as top spokespersons, Parr says smart brands use both internal and external experts for credibility.

6. Mystery

Incomplete storylines grab attention. The uncertainty reduction theory states that people try to remove uncertainty and lack of closure in their lives so it is important to create moment to moment suspense and cliffhangers as shown through Parr’s “Best Buds” Budweiser advertisement example.

7. Acknowledgement

As a basic human need, people pay attention when you acknowledge them in your messaging. This desire to be known is also reflected through parasocial relationships, particularly seen in celebrity fandom. These “one-sided relationships” where fans invest, and yet might remain blind to their targets of affection help people feel understood. Also, people give celebrities attention as stars reflect one’s identity, as this Verily Magazine article and tweet show.

Verily Magazine ‏@verilymag “I used to dislike @taylorswift13 until I realized I basically am her…”

Hence, to create acknowledgement, Parr urged companies to enable audience participation.

As an ending tip, Parr says, to successfully hold attention spans, “attention masters don’t draw attention to themselves but their causes.” And while it’s not possible to use all these attention at one time, the trick is to use them in your unique situation.


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