The Digital World – Distraction or Opportunity

Dealing With Distraction

CMO EXCLUSIVES | July 22, 2013

by Samuel Greengard
Contributing Writer


Digital technology has changed the world, and (mostly) for the better. However, the growing barrage of devices, apps, sites, tweets, alerts, and notifications is profoundly altering the way we approach the world—and interact with each other.


  • The typical person living in an urban environment views somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 marketing messages daily.
  • A classic mistake some marketers make is thinking that grabbing a person’s attention is equivalent to success.
  • Progressive engagement uses a storytelling approach that fits the nature of the media.

It’s safe to say that the average person is more distracted than ever, with a shorter and shorter ability to focus on a specific task. According to Web siteStatistic Brain, the average attention span of a human is now only 8 seconds—down from 12 seconds in 2002.

Of course, all of this has profound implications for marketers. According to some estimates, the typical person living in an urban environment views somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 marketing messages daily—more than double that of three decades ago. Said Jonathan Lee, managing director at marketing strategy firm Huge, in an interview with “It’s becoming harder to get people to pay attention to your message. The competition for mindshare and market share is intense.”

Navigating this environment is fraught with challenges. Some marketers are responding by creating messages and advertisements that are loud, blaring, and in your face. Others are taking a more subtle approach by creating a hook and then luring consumers through native advertising and progressive marketing. Still others are exploring entirely new ways to interact and connect with consumers.

“The challenge is to stand out but not in an annoying way,” said Roger Dooley, founder of marketing consulting firm Dooley Direct and author of “Brainfluence: 100 Ways to Persuade and Convince Consumers with Neuromarketing.”

Cognitive Disconnection
When MTV burst onto the scene in 1981, it radically transformed music, video, and the way people consumed media. Tight edits and fast-moving visuals created an appealing approach that quickly moved into the mainstream. Within a decade, newspapers such as USA Todaybegan publishing shorter stories and eye-catching infographics. Somewhere along the way, many observers began to bemoan the death of attention spans. Today, it’s no secret that traditional publishing is withering, 140-character tweets are flourishing, and short YouTube clips have emerged as a primary news sources for many people.

Consider: One study found that 17 percent of all page views on the Internet last less than four seconds and only 4 percent last 10 minutes. What’s more, individuals read only 28 percent of the words on a page of about 600 words, and the average office worker checks his or her e-mail inbox about 30 times per hour. Stand in an airport or crowded public place, and it’s difficult to believe that many people aren’t checking far more often—and monitoring their Facebook and Twitter feeds in real time.

There’s also a growing expectation that content will load quickly. Ramesh Sitaraman, a professor in the School of Computer Science at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found that online viewersditch a slow-loading video after only two seconds, and nearly half steer away if the video hasn’t loaded after 10 seconds. He says that as technology gets faster, human nature doesn’t change but expectations do. “The faster the connection, the more impatient people become,” he told

Of course, there are significant implications for marketing executives. “There are literally tens of thousands of things a person can focus on in any given day. The reality is that our brains are selective about what we process and how we use information,” Dooley told “When we have a Twitter feed that’s updating every 20 seconds, an email account that’s pinging every minute or two, and all these other things that are going on, it clearly creates a very distracting environment, both from a productivity standpoint and a marketing standpoint.”

Dooley said that a classic mistake some marketers make is thinking that grabbing a person’s attention is equivalent to success. “You can get people to look by displaying pulsating colors and shapes, or being louder and more blatant. But that doesn’t mean you’re doing anything to move them toward the desired result and converting them to a customer,” he said. “The focus must be on serving up the right marketing message in context and doing it in a consumer-friendly way.” He adds that different types of campaigns work for different groups, and understanding the audience and how best to communicate the message is key.

There’s good news and bad news in Dooley’s message. The upside is that today’s technology and tools present enormous opportunities—when they are used effectively to deliver the right message at the right place in the right time. The downside is that many marketers struggle to compile data and target consumers effectively. Too often, marketers take a shotgun approach. “People are barraged by messages, and when they’re overloaded they tune out. Breaking through all the clutter requires some thinking and creativity,” he said.


Beyond The Banner Ad
Marketers must come to grips with the fact that the success of the traditional “interruptive” model is waning, Huge’s Lee said. “Getting crazier, louder, and more omnipotent doesn’t force anyone to pay attention.” He said he believes that, in the end, “contextual relevance” is key, and marketers must constantly ask where the value exchange comes into play. “It’s crucial to give people tools they can utilize and something of value—all while making the experience more three-dimensional and participatory,” he added.

Lee pointed to Starbucks’ smartphone app as a perfect example of how marketing can be embedded into the overall consumer experience—and become almost invisible. “It allows you to more effectively interact with the store and amplify the experience when you buy coffee,” he said. The app lets customers pay electronically, keeps track of loyalty points, offers free music and app downloads, and Wi-Fi in the stores connects users to the store’s digital content network.

Likewise, tools such as Shazam, which tags audio from the radio or TV and delivers relevant information, demonstrate the need for a deeper and richer experience, Lee said. It’s important for marketers to examine behavior—such as the way people share content and browse on an iPad while watching television—in order to identify key marketing gaps and pivot points, he said. “Today, marketing value can come in many more forms than it has in the past,” Lee pointed out. “It’s up to executives to identify the value proposition and deliver on it.”

Hank Barnes, research director at Gartner, says that capturing mindshare requires more than a clever message that gets a consumer to look for a moment. In some instances, even highly successful viral campaigns haven’t translated to better sales. He believes that an approach called “progressive engagement” is often effective. The technique uses a storytelling approach that fits the nature of the media. “It allows people to drill down on their terms and time slice their way through content as they see fit,” he told

In some cases, progressive engagement relies on native advertising techniques to draw a person in via a promoted tweet or Facebook ad and then link them to video or a more detailed Web page. In other cases, it simply layers content so that a person can explore a product or service on his own terms. Case studies, reviews, peer stories, and other social content can prove particularly effective as well. “People trust their peers more than they trust a marketing department,” Barnes said.

In fact, progressive engagement can make marketing appear nearly invisible—particularly when messages and ads are effectively segmented and delivered in the right context. “People seek information about products they are interested in. When marketing and advertising is delivered effectively and at the right point in the buying cycle, people will dig deeper on their own. They do not view the process as intrusive or bothersome,” Barnes pointed out.

Coming Distractions
Navigating this new world requires an entirely different mindset. “It’s essential to constantly examine each aspect of your marketing strategy and try to make it work with the way that your customers’ brains are wired to work,” Dooley said. That means taking distraction and short-attention spans into account while microtargeting segments and understanding how words, images, and audio appeal to different groups. It’s also about understanding where a person fits in on a behavioral spectrum. For example, an early adopter isn’t the same as someone who is risk-adverse.

Sitaraman said that marketing executives must also pay attention to IT systems and performance—on the Web, on mobile devices, and elsewhere. It’s impossible to escape higher expectations and shorter attention spans, he noted. “People used to accept eight seconds for a Web page to load, then it became four seconds, and the tolerance level is likely to drop further in the future,” he noted. This translates into a need to understand the technology, the medium, and the delivery method, and—for better or for worse—address the demands of today’s audience. “The user experience is everything,” he said.

In the end, the entire marketing industry must rethink its approach, Lee said. “There is too much reliance on getting people’s attention by any means possible,” he said. “The reality is that most people don’t click on banner ads, and they increasingly view marketing efforts as interruptive.”

Most marketers create digital billboards and bumper stickers that are ineffective at getting the message across, he added. “Those that segment groups, target them effectively, and use digital tools and techniques to deliver a message of value at the right time will emerge as the winners,” Lee said.

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