Guest Column: "Pay attention to what your potential users pay attention to"

Change in medium also means a shift in how we consume, and it is worth understanding how this new world order is rewiring our habits, says Dr Sai Gaddam, Founder, Kernel Insights

e4m by Sai Gaddam
Updated: Sep 6, 2013 4:32 PM
Guest Column: "Pay attention to what your potential users pay attention to"

Everyone is now online. They are now ‘friends’ on Facebook, spending hours every week sharing and appreciating pictures of cats and political revolutions. Unsurprisingly, advertisers are also rushing online to be their friend. What a great and refreshing change it is, to be able to reach out to the customers you choose to, and for a fraction of the cost! Or so you think, wrongly. This change in medium also means a fundamental shift in how we consume and what we pay attention to. And it is worth understanding exactly how this new world order is rewiring our habits.

The Under-Appreciated Currency of Attention

Here’s a fun little task for you. Watch this short, two-minute video and count the number of times players wearing white pass the ball to each other. You may watch this on mute, but if possible do listen to it.

Watch video here…

Recent psychology research is bearing out the fact that we are bad at remembering things. In fact, our brains actively ignore most of the world around us. And this is a good thing. You don’t want to be paying attention to traffic on the opposite side of the road, nor do you want to remember the pattern of flooring in every house you have ever visited. Selective attention is what allows us to operate well in a world full of irrelevant distractions and experiences.

But this is bad for your advertisement. Your ad is that guy in a gorilla suit desperately flailing his arms for attention. This is all the more true on the web. Eye tracking studies show that many of us are essentially blind to ads and hardly look at them. They fade into background noise, like the flooring in your friend’s apartment you visited last week.

Why do they fade into the background? Our brains are quite attentive and vigilant when they enter new environments, whether those are places in the real world or sites on the World Wide Web. Soon, however, we start learning where the useful information is spatially, and where the irrelevant information is. Ads then punish themselves further by having completely unrelated stimuli share the same space. An unfortunate example of this in action recently showed up on my Facebook page.

When I see ‘Mangalsutras’ and ‘Manforce’ appear together, my brain learns to ignore that spatial location. “Nothing useful is showing up there”, it silently tells me and nudges me away. There’s a wonderful saying in Telugu that if you are drinking milk under a palm tree, people will assume you are tanking up on toddy. You are known by the company you keep and the places you hang out at, and this is unfortunately true for ads as well.

When and Where Matter

Does this mean all web advertising is near-invisible? No. Facebook, surprisingly, is leading the way in making ads relevant again. In running campaigns for MakkhiChoose, I noticed that some ads were an incredible 80 times more successful in driving users and installations. That’s not 80 per cent but 8000 per cent! These are what Facebook terms newsfeed ads. Rolled out in March this year, their amazing performance is being noticed and reflected in their stock price.

The reason these newsfeed ads work well for Facebook – and will work even better for you – is an ingenious psychological hack. Facebook has conditioned us over the last couple of years to expect and focus on bite-sized stories in the form of updates. Conventional stories, like the ones you see on news sites or any of the other websites you visit, are single servings that often take up the entire page or multiple pages. An ad, in these cases, is an intrusion. On Facebook, thanks to our excellent conditioning, it just another short story you reflexively pay attention to. Simple, yet brilliant.

So, does this mean you must turn over your meager advertising budget to Facebook and pave their way to global domination? Not so fast. Facebook is not the only place your users ever visit, and besides the ad rates there will quickly rise to reflect their better quality. Your users are visiting many other niche websites. Reach out to them there in an engaging manner that makes sense and is part of the context. Pay attention to what your potential users pay attention to. Or you will end up being that helpless arm-flailing gorilla.

The author is the Founder of Kernel Insights 

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