Last Thanksgiving, the food devoured and the dishes cleaned, I distinctly remember sitting down to watch one of the football games, then glancing at my phone for Facebook updates and new email. All at once, an advertising tsunami hit, as if every brand I'd ever encountered was flooding me with messages in anticipation of sales. Clothes and TVs. Mobile devices and kids' toys. Even those candles I'd bought for my wife a couple months earlier.

In that moment, however fleeting, the playing field was clear and the challenges for brands on full display: There may be more ways to reach consumers than ever before, but those consumers are harder to engage than ever before, too.

While my experience was in the key early stages of the holiday season, the challenges are not limited to the holidays. Brands are facing the same challenges every day, and the general acceleration of commerce is going to make this a permanent phenomenon.

Marketers need to know, more than ever, how to break through the clutter.

The proliferation of digital devices, coupled with a deluge of short, "snackable" content, has given consumers greater choice than ever in how and where they consume media. That's led to more distractions and ever-shrinking attention spans. A couple of pieces of data illustrate the point:

  1. We use media more than ever before. Over the last 13 years alone, according to Nielsen research, average time spent using consumer media has increased from 45 to 65 hours per week. That's a nearly 45% increase.
  2. We switch platforms more than ever before. In another study, Digital Natives (born 1990 or later) switched media platforms 27 times per hour, on average—or about every other minute. Those born before 1990 switched 17 times per hour on average—not quite as jumpy, but pretty jumpy nevertheless. The results translate into a 30% decrease in attention span.

So, even as brand managers have more opportunity to "meet" consumers, those consumers are busy meeting other brands, too. That means less time for the necessary interaction that leads to a sale. The "attention economy" has left brands battling for consumer engagement in every corner of our lives—from TV and mobile devices to planes, trains, and automobiles.

How can marketers know whether their creative was strong enough to beat the rapid succession of advertising and make an emotional connection with the consumer?

It was hard enough in the pre-digital age, when surveys were the order of the day, but asking questions of busy consumers isn't at all enough today. To break through in this complex environment, marketers must have an understanding of how our brains process information in the modern media landscape.

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image of Carl Marci

Dr. Carl Marci is chief neuroscientist of Nielsen Consumer Neuroscience.

LinkedIn: Carl D. Marci, MD

Twitter: @CMBiometrics