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Illustration of a person holding a sign saying

No, seriously – attention is the new currency. I think it’s pretty clear that these days there are simply an unimaginable number of things we’re supposed to see, hear and think about from an unprecedented number of channels. So – what can we do about it and how can any brand stand out? How can we get the attention of those decision-makers we need?

Our attention is precious and in demand, but we tend to give attention when we feel we have to: at work, driving or crossing a road. Note the word “feel” – there’s an emotional driver in behind this too: the need to provide an income, the need to get home safely and so on.

The interesting zone is the rest of the time, the things we focus our attention on when we get a choice, even for a second. I bet the things that hold our attention then have an emotion involved, whether it’s love for family, passion for football – even anger and pain.

There is science here: both neuroscientists and “unplugging” gurus tell us that, like it or not, we are still hard-wired like cave dwellers, to respond quickest to emotionally loaded stimuli, and to seek the fastest path to reward. Once that was a slow-moving woolly mammoth, but apparently some brains still see that “win big” gambling ad the same way. The same gurus also tell us how much time we waste and that the best weapon to help you get things done is not “focus” but to consciously develop the skill of blocking everything else out.

Earn the right

To cut through the clutter, brands need to earn the right to my attention, create the desire for me to block everything else for a minute and focus on that brand: and the best way is by causing an emotional reaction – naming and solving my problem, making my life or my job easier, essentially removing pain. Other less basic emotional messages like “you really deserve this treat” can work at the right time, but not always.

Belonging is another big base emotion: we want to belong to tribes and we will give that tribe attention (and usually money). The drive to join the “good parent club” is a powerful motivator that works for a big industry, from makers of baby furniture to fertility services. Typically, developers of new housing focus less on the homes themselves and more on “security for your family”, ease of commuting and “growing a new community”.

When I lived in Melbourne, I discovered you could talk to five-year-olds and 95 year olds about footie – even more than the UK it felt like anyone with a pulse was an avid fan of their Aussie Rules team. It was just in the blood. Great B2B brands know this – even if your product appears very specific or technical, find the tribe that likes it and buys it, serve them well and find out everything you can about them so you can work to expand your tribe.

Conversely, trying to manufacture or glue fake emotions onto that new widget results in some of the worst advertising crimes and wastes clients’ money.

I may invite you in

If you stir my emotions I will respond internally, and you’ll earn a bit more attention. If your timing is right for me – meaning you took time to know me and your media buying is very intelligent, not necessarily high-budget – I’ll want to “invite your brand in”. I’ll want to find out more or talk to you – so brands need to expect this, be ready to respond quickly and appropriately and often make the first message part of a conversation.

I believe the world has a lot of “blah” marketing messages that are a waste of everyone’s time and money, usually because they don’t speak with appropriate emotion or address a specific need at the right time.

The thing about attention is that it’s often a conscious and moment-to-moment decision. That bloke in the hi-vis vest gets my attention for a second, but unless he’s riding a bike badly in front of me or flagging me down, I’ll have no emotional response and my mind will flick away in a nanosecond. And if I think about him at all it’ll be negative.

So it’s vital to be really clear who you’re trying to reach and what their needs really are. The “when and where” media-buy question is important too, but flows from the first.

We work with at least one client to make brilliant ads that are hung above urinals (and no, they aren’t for male incontinence pads, although Olly did work on those once!). And for that client and the specific men it targets they work – but if your timing is wrong or your message is clunky you won’t get attention. Or even worse you’ll draw negative attention.

Thanks for reading this far, let me know what you think.