The Digital Signage Insider

Grab viewers' attention with the right content and context, MEC says

Published on: 2007-07-11

While it's been available for months, Mediaedge:cia's study on consumer attention patterns never quite found its way onto my radar, as it focuses mostly on mobile media instead of marketing at retail. Fortunately, Hans-Peter at content creation house Retail Crossing emailed me a copy recently. While there's no direct mention of digital signage, kiosk networks, or other newfangled retail media initiatives, the study's focus on partial attention behavior -- when people constantly scan for something more important or more interesting than what they're currently doing -- has obvious implications for all sorts of out-of-home media.

For those of you who haven't encountered them before, Mediaedge:cia (often called MEC) is WPP's premier customer engagement agency. Their specialties are below-the-line services like communications planning, consumer insight and ROI studies, and media planning and buying, and they're one of the foremost experts on retail marketing. Consequently, it's not surprising that their studies are applicable to any number of marketing and advertising vehicles, from TV commercials to hand-out flyers. The article we're looking at today, "Pay attention, please!" is no exception. Their argument can be distilled into five key points:
  1. While a person may physically be in one place, his attention may be elsewhere. In other words, where we are no longer dictates what we do or what we pay attention to.
  2. Because of this, context and content are more important than location for influencing people's attention.
  3. People multi-task things when they're not important enough to warrant full focus. Thus, brands and their communication receive only the attention that they deserve.
  4. Therefore, the optimum role for commercial communication content is not to work within a person's partial attention, but to pull him out of it into full focus.
  5. Because interruption marketing is good at this, we may see a rise in this sort of communication as marketers try harder to fully engage people.
The crux of the study is how people tend to divide their attention when no one thing is important enough to warrant "full focus." For example, when an individual switches back and forth between several different tasks that each require a lot of attention, it's called multi-tasking. We do this every day when switching between our word processor and email applications. Each task requires a healthy amount of attention, but it's fairly easy to switch between the two. The next step down on the attention scale is called "open attention," and is essentially when somebody appears to pay attention to something, but is actually leaving his eyes and ears open for something more interesting. Further down the scale is "active attention," where a person is actively looking for something else to pay attention to because the first stimulus is boring or insufficient. And finally, there's what MEC terms "diffuse attention," where a person doesn't give much attention to anything. (Note to self: petition to rename Monday as "Diffuse Attention Day.")

Perhaps most importantly, the MEC research shows that "people can and will give attention to commercial communications... but only when and where it suits them." Because things like WiFi and smartphones allow people to navigate the (real) world while simultaneously engaging in activities online, location is no longer as good a predictor of attention state as it once was. Thus, MEC argues, we need to think more about contextual relevance, and amp up our content, maybe literally. For example, the study shows that people often have some kind of background medium (TV, radio, etc.) on while actively engaged in some other activity. This situation could also be likened to in-store TV and audio networks, since stores are typically full of other attention-grabbing things.

While advertisers always want to be front-and-center in our minds, our ability to quickly scan multiple input sources for articles of interest may actually turn into an advantage for those using in-store ambient media. MEC says advertisers need to grab our full attention as quickly as possible, or else they get ignored by our autonomous attention systems. Here's the big challenge: P&G says advertisers have 3 seconds or less to do this. Advertisers say they have a lot more than 3 seconds worth of messages to get out there. Maybe the simple solution is to divide those messages into small chunks and rotate through them more frequently. If a particular short chunk is relevant to an individual, MEC's research suggests that the individual will be receptive to receiving it. If it's not of any interest, he'll just ignore it, but the advertiser will have another opportunity to engage in a short while, since there are now more (short) clips to be shown.

Of course, nothing is ever that simple. A digital signage network looping through dozens of 3 second spots all vying for customer attention would probably induce seizures in anyone unfortunate enough to enter the store. Nonetheless, the fundamental concept of using shorter messages designed to appeal to different psychological contexts is a good one, especially in locations where patrons are more likely to engage in multi-tasking or have their attention divided by multiple stimuli at once. I'll bet the creative types out there will be able to come up with all sorts of clever visual and audio devices for getting short, attention-grabbing messages into attractive packages...

...And on that note, did MEC really say they expect a return to interruption marketing? Didn't we just finish getting past all of that, with retailers flocking back to the old "customer is king, so don't piss him off" mantra? Fortunately, the doesn't advocate using blaring messages and loud noises to jolt a shopper into attention. Instead, they suggest a kinder, gentler form of interruption, catering to those already in an attention state where they're receptive to new stimuli. As the article notes: "At the focused end of the attention continuum, interruptions are generally unwelcome: 61% of people are unwilling to be interrupted when in full focus, and 59% when multi-tasking. But as people move towards open attention and beyond, they become more open to new stimuli -- willing to be distracted by something more interesting than what they are currently doing. ...Given the challenge of capturing people's attention, relevant interruptions must consciously lead to engagement, relationship building and action, rather than simply awareness. They should provide depth when and where people are looking for it (driving them towards 'pull' media), and bright, shiny objects when their state of attention demands something interesting or entertaining to be pushed towards them."

So as I wander about various stores, banks and other venues looking at today's digital signage networks, I often get the feeling that we're great at throwing bright, shiny objects up on screen, but not in a way that captures viewer attention. Let's face it: part of the time our messages simply won't be relevant to the viewer, and he'll ignore us. That's fine. Digital signage systems are all about reaching a certain audience that is merely more likely to be interested in what we have to say at a given point in time. But I'm certain that a good amount of content out there today just isn't up to snuff either. Digital signage clips have to be quick, easily digestible, and must remain on-message at all times. They can't be annoying or too disruptive. And last, but certainly not least, they should be ignorable when not relevant to the viewer, since he'll naturally try to tune them out anyway. Advertisers should always remember that viewer engagement is a privilege, not a right, even in a purely commercial setting. Viewers will reward good and relevant content with their attention, but content that tries to force itself onto uninterested shoppers will not only create a negative customer experience, but could cause the shopper to view the entire venue and its digital signage network in a negative light.

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