So You Want Attention?

Roughly 99% of the information and other stimuli we receive is filtered out even before we become aware of them. It’s how our brains prevent information overload from frying our mental circuits. (Actually, many theories of attention assert that those stimuli are being weakened, vs. completely filtered out, to allow us to focus on the rest.) Understanding what we are hard-wired to pay attention to can help us write more effectively to reach our target audiences.

  • We are more likely to pay attention to things in which we have a strong interest. Lots of things interest us, but we don’t have the bandwidth to focus on all of them. So the intensity of our interest prioritizes what we notice. Signals that were weakened may suddenly get stronger the moment they contain a high-interest trigger. For example, if someone across the room mentions your name, you’re likely to suddenly tune into that conversation, even though you had been unaware of it the second before.
  • We tend to see and hear what we are predisposed or expect to (confirmation bias). And we often don’t react well when a company does something that isn’t in keeping with our expectations for the brand. Imagine the reaction if Tiffany decided to change the color of its iconic “Tiffany blue” gift boxes.
  • I’d also argue that we’re drawn to content we can consume quickly and easily, without taking up too much of our brains’ processing power, in today’s connected society with so many stimuli constantly competing for our attention (the power of Twitter).

As marketers, these insights can help us rethink our strategies for “cutting through the clutter.”

  • Make it about them (not about you). Write about what your readers are interested in, not about your product or service. What problems are keeping them up at night? Is there an emerging trend that would be important to them (or their business)? Focus on helping them solve those problems, rather than on selling your solution.
  • Train them to be interested. Writing in an interesting style with “hooky” headlines is just the price of admission. To train your audience to be interested in reading whatever you write, you need to reward their attention with something valuable, e.g., timely, relevant, actionable or thought-provoking insights and information. This requires a total commitment on your part: behavioral (operant) conditioning only works if the desired behavior is rewarded consistently.
  • Give them what they expect from you. If you’re McDonald’s, make your stories about affordable food, family and fun. If you’re Nike, inspire your audience to push their physical boundaries to achieve extraordinary accomplishments. Failing to stay true to your brand is an instant trust-breaker. (It’s no surprise that McDonald’s experiments with tablecloths and candlelight never caught on with customers.)
  • Make it easy for them to get the value. Don’t make your audience work to get your message. Use bolding, bullets, etc. judiciously to make it easy for them to get the essential value just by skimming. Write less and edit more. Make your point quickly and straightforwardly. Then stop.

Margaret Schindel is Greenough’s Senior Content Strategist. Follow her on Twitter: @strategicview1

Maria Kucinski

Maria is an account supervisor at Greenough where she manages media strategy and relations for a variety of mission-driven organizations. Her clients include American Student Assistance, The Museum of World War II, WBUR, and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, among others.

Maria joined Greenough after a successful career entrenched in New York City’s art scene. She executed national media campaigns for a roster of high-profile museum clients at Resnicow and Associates; managed the careers of contemporary artists at the Cristin Tierney Gallery; oversaw the final tour of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; and conducted fundraising for Robert Wilson’s avant-garde theater residency program, The Watermill Center. Maria is a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. 

Stonewall Jackson, Procter & Gamble and Ineligible Receivers

I’ve become an avid reader of biographies in the past seven years. Some of them chronicled figures of whom I’d had some vague knowledge of before digging deeper into their stories. Others I’ve stumbled upon from recommendations and lists. Rebel Yell by S.C. Gwynne is one such biography. Gwynne tells the story of Thomas J. Jackson - or, as most know him, Stonewall Jackson. A man of great contradictions, Jackson became an icon of the Confederacy through his sheer brilliance as a military leader. Uncommonly brave and religious, Jackson was ruthless and generally not collaborative. But he saw the field of battle through a different lens. “(His) strategic innovations shattered the conventional wisdom of how war was waged; he was so far ahead of his time that his techniques would be studied generations into the future.” It may not seem obvious, but Jackson’s ability to fashion new strategies to win numerous battles in the Civil War is a clear reminder that in far less lethal circumstances businesses need to bring creativity and clarity to the strategies they plan to adopt in 2015. Let me explain.

First, back to Stonewall Jackson: one need look no further than the first Battle of Manassas, the first big battle of the Civil War. In the face of an early onslaught, Jackson maneuvered his troops in a highly unconventional yet ultimately advantageous position with tactics no other had considered. His rout of the North served notice to President Lincoln that the Confederates were not to be simply outmanned and outgunned. Though we all know the ultimate outcome, a better strategy in battle after battle trumped advantages in numbers and weaponry.

Likewise, in far less dramatic circumstances, I’ve seen how businesses with powerful strategies learn to outflank and command winning shares. In Playing to Win, A.G. Lafley, former Chairman and CEO, Procter & Gamble, and Roger L. Martin, dean of University of Toronto, outline the critical steps to formulating strategies in markets. It begins with defining a ‘winning aspiration’ versus a plan to simply compete. Like Stonewall Jackson’s savvy selection of redoubts, it’s about choosing the right playing field -- whether it’s product category or geography -- in combination with a clean plan for how to win by crafting the value proposition and selecting a competitive advantage in either low cost or differentiation. There is no sustainable middle ground between the two. In the skin care category, for example, P&G successfully repositioned Oil of Olay, a mature and underperforming brand, with a broader value proposition (helps more than just wrinkles). By addressing a new market of women in the 35 plus age group, pricing the product higher to convey more value and devising a wholly different approach to distribution, they saw revenue grow dramatically from $800 million in the late 1990s to $2.5 billion ten years later. The authors repeatedly point to the need to make explicit choices. “Too often, CEOs in particular will allow what is urgent to crowd out what is really important. When an organizational bias for action drives doing, often thinking falls by the wayside.”

Strategies on two different fields
Strategies on two different fields

Quite literally on a different playing field, my favorite team the New England Patriots showed fans a whole new approach to attacking an opponent in its dramatic come from behind victory last week over the vaunted Baltimore Ravens. By employing a perfectly legal but completely unusual formation, Bill Belichick crafted a strategy that enabled Patriots’ receivers to be wide open against the Ravens’ bewildered defense. Ravens Coach John Harbaugh failed to react with as much as a time out and instead earned a penalty flag for unsportsmanlike conduct as he lashed out in frustration at the referees. Yet again, this past Sunday Belichick unveiled innovative formations and plays in the drubbing of the Indianapolis Colts; the coach and the team now move on to an unprecedented sixth appearance in the Super Bowl.  In preparing for games, NFL coaches may be the most tireless workers on the planet: they obsess about every little detail and scheme for seemingly every eventuality from an opponent. And yet with only the best teams and finest coaches remaining in the playoffs, Belichick managed to conceive of a strategy that left his opponent flatfooted, literally.

This brings me to an observation formed over 30 years in business: too many organizations fail to develop creative strategies designed to win in the market. Whether it’s a preference for action over thinking, a misguided confidence that what worked in the past will do so again, or simply a lack of capacity for strategic planning, too often I’ve seen resources squandered. Better strategy is not complicated, but it is tough because it starts with hard choices. With a disciplined strategic approach to their 2015 plans, enterprises large and small unquestionably will put themselves in position to hit their goals. And that’s a resolution for the New Year we can all get behind.

Phil Greenough is the Founder and CEO of Greenough. Follow him on Twitter: @philgreenough