Time is today's scarcest resource. Everyone is suffering from attention overload—from too many to-dos to overflowing inboxes to constant technology distractions.

As a result, many marketers have resorted to just getting louder (literally and figuratively). But no one wins the attention arms race.

Rather than pushing (and annoying) customers, one must harness the ebbs and flows of customers' time and attention, and work with those forces rather than fight against them.

One way to break through the cacophony is via triggers that redirect customer behavior. There are eight such triggers, or 8Ps, that frequently result in a sale if matched with an appropriate call to action.

1. Prairie-Dog Events

Prairie dogs are animals best known for popping their heads out of their burrows and looking around. Similarly, when certain events occur, customers are triggered to look around at competitive alternatives.

Examples range from major disruptions, such as losing your Internet connection for a few days, to minor issues, such as a rude customer-service agent who prompts a desire for a new service. A change in structure, such as a new management regime, regulations, or a life event can also prompt customers to seek alternatives.

Focusing marketing efforts around such events will yield higher product or service adoption, because customers would be willing to devote attention to alternative offerings. Timing is key.

Social media is a new way to find customers experiencing such frustrations, as expressed through their tweets and Wall comments about your competitors.

2. Peers and Power

Social triggers are strong drivers of time and attention. People want to be generous and helpful to family and friends. They also want to show off to their peers.

Farmville, the popular Facebook game played by millions each day, has tapped into this trigger by leveraging social acceptance to increase revenue. Players purchase items, such as virtual cows and goats (online game pieces), to decorate their online farms.

What is interesting is that the virtual cow or goat is not what the customer ultimately values; rather, customers buy virtual items—symbolizing their accomplishments in the game—to be viewed favorably by their peers.

For marketers who use this trigger, it might be more effective to enable Bob to learn through his social network that Frank bought a new BMW, rather than send BMW advertisements directly to Bob.

Social media adds a new twist and set of opportunities.

3. Personal Pursuits

Unlike social motivations, personal pursuits are driven by internal motivations. They are enjoyable activities that cause people to lose all track of time while, for example, surfing the Internet, painting, or reading a great book for hours.

Many studies have shown that dwell time (physical or virtual) translates into more revenue. Can you attract and keep customers in your store or engaged with your brand longer via personal pursuits that so entertain or arouse curiosity (e.g., to solve a mystery) that they don't recognize the passage of time?

Scavenger hunts using locations-based services tap into this trigger.

4. Productivity

Everyone likes to save time. In today's hectic world, if you can offer a product or service that saves people time... it will generate interest.

Voice2insight, for example, helps busy salespeople update customer records via a voice message. The service acts as a concierge by taking to-dos, assigning action items, and sending thank-yous for sales representatives while they are attending meetings.

In short, a sales rep can spend more time calling on customers and less time sitting in the office updating the customer relations management system.

5. Procrastination

Waiting until the last minute is rarely desirable, but to paraphrase a popular saying from the '80s, "It happens." And when it happens, people are willing to pay.

Consider how FedEx built an empire on deadline-driven businesspeople who need to get a proposal or contract delivered by morning.

6. Physical Need

We all know the danger of grocery shopping when you're hungry: You buy way too much and usually not the things you really need. That is an example of how physical need—hunger—affects attention and decision-making. But there are lots of physical needs beyond hunger that can focus the attention of potential customers.

7. Proximity

Have you ever driven to the store to purchase two items and left with a cartful of purchases? Big-box retail stores tap heavily into the proximity trigger by placing complementary products near staples as reminders of other needs.

Effective websites do that as well. Providing such triggers taps into the notion that people are being efficient with their time and will avoid a return trip.

8. Price

Low prices obviously catch people's attention. When used judiciously with other marketing methods, the price trigger can be very effective.

But a dependency on price is probably the costliest way to grow sales and can lead to long-term erosion of profit margins.

Some companies are caught in a continual loop of discounting for attention and, unfortunately, mistake such attention as customer loyalty.

Not All Triggers Are Created Equal

Assessing how triggers affect customers is important. Just because a potential customer is experiencing a trigger doesn't mean it will be sufficient to motivate a new customer to invest the time and effort needed to switch.

That's why it's crucial that you consider not only the trigger itself but also how easy it is to switch to your offering, so you can match switching costs to trigger strength.

Marketers who develop programs that reduce the time to switch and the hassle of switching in effect create a lever for lowering the product- or service-adoption threshold.

For example, bank-switching services, whereby banks offer "concierges" who assist with completing paperwork and manage the transition for the client, make the decision to switch much easier.

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Marketers who use techniques that tap into the ebbs and flows of customers' time by focusing on triggers will drive revenue much more effectively than those who merely continue to deploy traditional means of gaining attention and recognition.

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image of Adrian Ott
Adrian Carol Ott is CEO of Exponential Edge Inc. (www.exponentialedge.com) and the author of The 24-Hour Customer: New Rules for Winning in a Time-Starved, Always-Connected Economy (HarperBusiness, August 2010). Reach her via Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ExponentialEdge and adrian.ott@exponentialedge.com.