Whether they're funny jingles in a commercial or risque ads in a magazine, some marketing efforts are universally catchy. That's because humans are hardwired to process attention-grabbing stimuli in the same way as others, says Ben Parr, former editor at large at Mashable and the author of Captivology. In his book, Parr identifies seven triggers that capture consumers' attention across three stages—immediate, short-term, and long-term engagement. Backed by scientific studies and research, Parr's approach to brand "captivology" promises to draw consumers in and keep them coming back. He shared his insight with Associate Editor Maria Minsker.
CRM: How did you become so interested in the science behind attention?
Ben Parr: I started out as an editor but moved on to [become an investor] when I decided I wanted to be more hands-on. What I realized was that the start-ups I was working with were looking for investors that added value by helping them get press, develop a go-to-market strategy, and get influencers on board, and that was all about getting attention. I read tons of psychology studies and neurology research on attention and wanted to apply all that to the real world of business ventures, so I started working on the book. The book dives into the fundamentals of attention because I just found it fascinating, but it's driven by that business point of view.
CRM: So what are some of the fundamentals?
Parr: In Captivology, I explain that attention works in three stages—the immediate stage, meaning something makes you turn your head and look; the short-term–interest stage, like when we watch ads or YouTube videos; and the long-term–interest stage, which is basically the interest that follows a brand wherever it goes. What I try to emphasize is that there is real science here. For example, there's a scientific reason why we stop what we're doing and pay attention to an Apple commercial: The brand has our long-term interest piqued. And the second thing that's really key in the book is that attention is tied to profit and branding effectiveness. You need it to succeed. For most of the book, I focus on the key triggers that capture attention and how businesses can [use] these triggers...in their messaging.
CRM: What are these triggers and why are they so effective at getting someone's attention?
Parr: There are seven triggers...automaticity, framing, disruption, reward, reputation, mystery, and acknowledgment. Automaticity is the first trigger because it's our immediate reaction to sights, sounds, and other stimuli. Giving a warm cup of coffee to someone could create a strong relationship because the physical feeling of warmth is associated with the interpersonal feeling of warmth. In terms of long-term attention, the disruption trigger is important, because it plays off of the fact that we pay attention to the things that violate our expectations. Historically, we have always paid attention to things that are out of place because this is how we've perceived potential threats or potential opportunities. It's the reason why if a parade of clowns walked into a coffee shop, we would turn our heads.
CRM: Can you tell our readers how these triggers shape campaigns?
Parr: There are a lot of brand stories in the book, but one of my favorites is a really old story, from 1910, about a brand called Odorono. It was founded by a teenage entrepreneur named Edna Murphy. Her father invested in an antiperspirant for his hands because he was a surgeon, so he didn't want to sweat while he was doing surgery, and his daughter figured out that she could use it for her armpits. But back in 1910, body odor was something you just didn't talk about, and it didn't sell. So Murphy teamed up with an advertiser named James Webb Young, who eventually became the first chairman of the Ad Council, and together they created a series of campaigns because they realized that they had to change the framing of the conversation. They put an upfront ad in Ladies Home Journal that basically said "Let's have a frank discussion about body odor and how you don't have to have it because Odorono exists." This was super-controversial, and tons of women canceled their subscriptions, but it did its job. It broke the taboo and suddenly [body odor] was okay to discuss. Sales doubled in the next year, and eventually Murphy sold the company for millions of dollars. It was just a matter of reframing the brand.
CRM: You say that, too often, companies take the wrong approach to rewarding their customers. What's the right approach?
Parr: It all comes back to attention. The standard rewards model is "do this, and I'll give you something in exchange." It is the leading approach to rewards and it isn't [the most] effective. There are different ways to deliver an extrinsic reward. For example, you are much more likely to enforce behavior if you surprise a customer with a reward. In other words, don't incentivize, because that's essentially bribery. Gifting rewards is more effective as well, and you see it a lot with mobile games. A friend can give a life to another friend playing the same social game, or share other items. No one really owns the lives in a game, but when a brand facilitates this sharing between friends, it has much more meaning. If a brand gives you a reward it's one thing, but if it's a friend, it's more personal and it really gets your attention.