It seems like marketers are going to extremes these days to attract attention. Consider, for example, the yellow snow campaign that had company logos drawn in yellow colored snow. scattered 10,000 wallets over New York City and San Francisco with messages inside that read, "If you were looking to get some free cash, shame on you. Redeem yourself by visiting".

We are exposed to several thousand ads and, increasingly, many web sites each day. But with this increasing exposure comes greater likelihood that we won't pay much attention to any of them. Consider a recent statistic that says that only 1% of people can recall 12 ads associated with a company. That abysmal statistic is particularly shocking in light of the billions of dollars spent each year on advertising.

So what can be done about it? One (though perhaps not the only) fundamental issue has to do with doing a better job attracting consumers' attention. With so much to for consumers to focus on these days there is a great need for marketing people to be diligent in making sure that their ads and web sites attract attention. We can't make any progress in getting people to develop an image of our brand or company or consider buying our product or service (even once) unless we can first attract their attention.

Before we go further, let's go over some basic principles about attention.

First, attention is selective. This means that consumers what (out of possibly hundreds of things) they wish to focus on at any one time. Selectivity is extremely important because the number of stimuli to which we are exposed at any given time is potentially overwhelming. Of course, the fact that attention is selective means that consumers can also become distracted—focusing on something new that grabs their attention.

Second attention is capable of being divided. Consumers can, to a certain extent, pay attention to two things at once—like drive a car and talk; watch TV and talk on the phone; search the web and listen to the radio. Interestingly, we can only divide our attention to things that are really familiar and easy to process. Use the following as an example. If you are in a familiar store, you can easily chat with a companion about an unrelated topic. But in an unfamiliar store, we need to stop talking and take in the environment. If you are on a web-site that has lots of stuff going on, you can either focus on a lot stuff but not think about them much, or decide to focus on one thing and think about it a lot.

Third, attention is limited. We only have so much of it. The fact that attention is capable of being divided and yet is limited means that we can either (1) attend to one thing and think about it a lot or (2) attend to lots of things and think about them a little.

OK. Now that we've talked about the consumer, let's talk about what you, as a marketer, need to do.

First, let's make a distinction between attracting attention and sustaining attention. In many cases, you want to do both. An ad or web site can have enough in it to initially make consumers focus on it. But remember, attention is selective. If we don't continue to make it interesting, consumers will be off somewhere else.

Doing only the attraction part without the sustaining part simply won't lead to as effective a message. If consumers don't devote enough attention to your ad or web site, they won't have thought much about your message or web content. As such, it doesn't have much of an opportunity to affect them (change how they think, make the brand memorable, etc.). The reason why companies are so concerned about zipping and zapping, and the reason web sites are so concerned about making an interesting site is that they want to sustain attention.

Second, let's think about WHAT we want consumers to attend to. Many companies make a mistake because the attention getting things on their ads or web sites are irrelevant things that distract from the main point they are trying get consumers to focus on and remember.

Remember, consumers' attention is selective and limited. If they focus a lot of some irrelevant element in your ad or web site, they won't have much left over to process what you really want them to remember.

What do we want consumers to attend to? We want them to focus on our brand name and our message. We want them to think of us when they have a need for a particular product or service category. We want them to remember whether, how or how much better than or different we are from our competitors. If these are the things we want consumers to focus on, think about and remember, these are the things that need to attract attention.

You might also find these highly related tutorials helpful:
What Attracts and Sustains Attention
Attracting Attention: What Makes Your Web Site Easy to Process

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image of Debbie MacInnis

Dr. Deborah J. MacInnis is the Charles L. and Ramona I. Hilliard Professor of Business Administration at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California, and a co-author of Brand Admiration: Build a Business People Love. She has consulted with companies and the government in the areas of consumer behavior and branding. She is theory development editor at the Journal of Marketing, and former co-editor of the Journal of Consumer Research. Professor MacInnis has served as president of the Association for Consumer Research and vice-president of conferences and research for the American Marketing Association's Academic Council. She has received the Journal of Marketing's Alpha Kappa Psi and Maynard awards for the papers that make the greatest contribution to marketing thought. She is the co-author of a leading textbook on consumer behavior and is co-editor of several edited volumes on branding.