The Key to Success with Online Customers: Grab Attention

May 13, 2011

It’s no surprise that the first key to success with online customers is gaining their attention.

After all, unless you capture the attention of a site visitor, you don’t stand a chance of getting any of the subsequent clicks and outcomes you want. What’s more, if you don’t grab the attention of your online customers, they are almost surely headed off to another website … and it’s probably one or your competitors to make matters worse.

Turns out, the topic of “attention” is far more subtle and elusive than you might expect.  In fact, Attention has been one of the most challenging topics of neuroscience investigations over the last 50 years.  There are two main topic areas: non-cognitive attention and cognitive attention.  In short, non-cognitive attention focused on what captures our attention without us thinking about it or making a conscious choice to focus our attention.  And conversely, the study of cognitive attention deals with how we control our attention, or lack control of maintaining sustained conscious attention as in the case of Attention Deficit Disorder.  Since our main focus as online marketers and online customer experience professionals is on capturing attention, I’m going to focus on the non-cognitive aspect of attention here. Let me set up the topic.

The brain of an online customer and sensory inputs.

At any given second, our brains are flooded with literally millions of sensory inputs. However, we have the capacity to give attention to only a handful of these inputs at any one time, four or five according to most neuroscientists.  And we can only give our “undivided attention” to one thing at a time.  The mechanism the brain uses to filter all these inputs and direct our attention is something of a mystery.  In the words of the noted neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, “We know that even so basic a skill as attention requires the participation of many far-flung regions of the brain … the visual, auditory, and somatosensory systems, but other special regions carry out equally important tasks.”  All of this happens in a non-cognitive matter.  In other words, we aren’t aware that our brain is directing out attention, and we aren’t making conscious choices.

Again, both the mechanism the brain uses, and the process of directing attention is complex and elusive. How and why we tune into one conversation at a party and not another, for instance, is a non-cognitive process that is not fully understood.  But that it happens is clear.  In fact, this “cocktail party” phenomenon was the basis for one of the foundational studies on attention conducted by a psychologist named Cherry in 1953. The experiment independently played two messages into separate headphones, one message to each ear simultaneously.  What happened is the brain automatically directed attention to one message and not the other.  Subjects could repeat one message accurately, and would have little or no awareness of the other message.  Turns out, our brain functions automatically to indeed give us a “one track mind”.  That doesn’t mean the brain can’t give attention to more than one input, but it does mean the brain has an automatic mechanism for directing our attention, and we can only give our full attention to one thing at a time.  Again, this process is subtle and non-cognitive.

Now, that doesn’t mean the brain can’t multi-task and divide attention to some degree.  But when it comes to something like following a conversation, the brain gives full attention to this task.

Let me use a personal experience to further illustrate.  I happen to live an in a historic neighborhood, with rather old and buckling sidewalks. The sidewalks are widely cracked and heaved up by the roots of the big old trees that line our streets.  When I go for a run, I’m not usually thinking about these uneven sidewalks.  But my brain directs attention and automatically adjusts my stride so I don’t stumble on the raised portions.  Occasionally, my attention might become so explicit on a particular crack that I become mindful of it and may even say to myself, “Watch out, don’t trip on that.”  But most of the time I’m not even aware.

But what happens if I start to get loaded up with attention demands?  It happened a while back. I was running along one of my usual routes. I had my iPod shuffle in my ears playing an interesting podcast.  I had my trusty dog, Cody, running alongside. A friend yelled, “Hello”.  At the same time, Cody diverted slightly because of a squirrel.  And wham, I tripped over one of the many predictable cracks, now bloody and bruised sprawled out on the sidewalk.  What happened?  I hit my attention limit.  My direct attention was focused on returning a “Hi” to a neighbor.  I was trying to follow the podcast. Further attention was diverted to my dog.  I was focused on maintaining my rigorous GPS pace and target heart rate. As a result, there wasn’t a slice of attention left for the crack.  And down I went.  Was I aware or thinking about any of this? No. Happens automatically.

Driving is a perfect example of using non-cognitive processes.

Driving a car is another commonly sited example. When we drive, we are more often than not operating on this non-cognitive, background attention. We’re listening to the radio, maybe having a conversation with a friend in the car, thinking about how to navigate to our destination, and performing all of the complex and interrelated tasks of driving a car at high speeds on the freeway.  Throw in a phone call, and we miss, or don’t have attention left for the unexpected conditions and crash.  Or maybe a billboard that catches our eye, or an attractive driver in another car, and before you know it we’re plowing into the back another car as traffic slows.

What we do know is that much of this non-cognitive attention is triggered at an old brain level. The old brain essentially is looking for patterns. It’s vigilant for patterns that could pose a threat, thus trigger attention and a “fight of flight” reaction. It’s vigilant for opportunities to nourish and maintain the health of the person. It’s alerted to sexually enticing signals. But these triggers of the old brain also are particularly sensitive to specific types of inputs. Sight, or more particularly, movement is a big trigger. In part, that’s because sight is a complex integration of 28 distinct regions of the brain. That’s why it’s thought sight and motion are such powerful triggers.  But similarly, sound, and specifically a human voice is a magnet for attention.  And when the human voice has the characteristics of a conversation, even more so. Smell. Particular colors.  Spacial placement of objects.  All influence attention.

So what does this have to do with online customer experience and internet marketing? Turns out, a lot. That’s because when people are online they are in a input rich environment. We are scanning, without a clear idea of what we are going to find. What’s more, more often than not we’re searching without consciously controlled objectives and focus. Simply put, we are open to what hooks the non-cognitive attention mechanisms of the brain.

The techniques we use on websites and the design elements of websites has an enormous impact on capturing attention.  I never cease to be amazed how many websites miss this.  In fact, with many websites I visit, the first question I ask is, “What is supposed to capture my attention hear?”  If it’s not at all clear, my next question is usually, “I wonder what the person behind this website is hoping I’ll do?”

Heat maps show where proper placement of website content should be

Significant attention has been given to a number of factors that help capture attention.  Yes, placement of objects on a page impacts attention.  And “heat maps,” like the one shown here, give an indication of where people will look most often on a page.  There are some standard rules that influence how we as human scan a webpage, and as a result, influence what we’re most likely to notice given placement on a page.  For instance, the top left portion is one of the hotspots.  That’s why it’s become a standard design convention to have the company logo here to accentuate brand recognition.

Color also impacts attention.  There is a ton of research that’s been done on the use of color.  No surprise, Red is the most powerful color for getting attention.  The Bullfighters cape isn’t red for the color blind bull.  But other colors that are in vogue these days for attention getting buttons include Orange, considered the most vibrant and adventuresome of colors.  Yellow is also a highly attention grabbing color.

Pictures of humans impact attention, particularly pictures of faces that are appealing to the demographic of visitors to a site.

Motion is another technique that’s increasing being used in websites.  However, a caution about emotion, don’t use gratuitous repeating motion.  For instance, most of the animated GIFs on websites go into this category.  Here is why.  Imagine you’re walking into a room, and a ceiling fan is rotating slowly and steadily.  Do you think it captivates your attention?  No, because it matches an expected pattern and it’s a predictable steady motion. Add to this that it’s inanimate, and the brain filters it out as “background motion” and eliminates it from the attention stack.  No image the same room, but the ceiling fan is still.  Suddenly and unexpectedly, the ceiling fan moves quickly a quarter turn and stops.  I guarantee it will capture your attention, and most likely become a subject of conversation with whoever else is in the room.  Websites are increasingly using motion.  Often, it’s simply a slide show of images in the middle of the page.  On the hierarchy of attention grabbers, not that high, but better than nothing.

As far as the neuroscience of non-conscious attention grabbers goes, two items are  conspicuously lacking from the list of common techniques on websites: Motion and Voice.  But it’s motion of a particular quality.  If you see a person walk into a room, that is a huge attention getter.  Any motion that involves a human or human likeness triggers attention.  Today, this neuroscience attention trigger is largely unexplored and unused on websites.  I think video of a particular character can be helpful here.  What’s more, I think animation of digital characters is a very powerful attention grabber.  Clearly, that’s a part of what we’re doing at CodeBaby.  And often, it’s the random and subtle movement of an “idle animation” that activates attention.

Then there is voice.  Voice, particularly a human conversation has a quality that captures primary attention.  After all, we learned from the Cocktail Party experiment long ago that we’re wired to tune into one, and only one conversation at a time.  So there is enormous untapped potential for using human voice in conversational style.

Of course, at CodeBaby we’re seeking to marry several of these untapped attention magnets: effective movement, human attention, and a conversational voice based interaction.  Whether it’s using CodeBaby or a product like ours, there is dramatic opportunity to more effectively tap into the neuroscience of non-cognitive attention.  Why not use it as a means to evaluate your website today?

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