Marketing: From Getting to Giving Attention

(Chapter 7 from Transform: A Rebel’s Guide for Digital Transformation)

Pavlov’s Dogs are disobeying

You are as likely to get hit by lightning as you are to click on an online banner ad. And even if you do click on that ad, the chances that you’ll buy something based on the ad are virtually nonexistent, according to a study by Pretarget and ComScore. “88 percent of business buyers believe that online content has played a major to moderate role in vendor selection,” according to a 2014 Chief Marketing Officer survey. “The bad news: Only 9% of buyers trust vendor websites.”

The golden heyday of marketing and advertising is on the wane. The magic is wearing thin. The clever and creative pitches have been used once too often. People aren’t watching as much anymore. People aren’t listening. Some organizations may still be increasing their advertising spend but that’s because the effectiveness of advertising is declining and therefore you need to spend more to get the same effect.

Traditional marketing has a long history of practicing the “dark arts” of emotional manipulation. Some of the most basic emotional triggers are to do with association. Find out the thing that people really love and associate your product with it. If you do it right, then they’ll love your product by association. These mass marketing techniques have been used extensively for almost 100 years. They are dependent on a relatively uneducated, gullible, vain or emotionally-insecure public.

Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was a Russian scientist who rang a bell every time he fed his dogs. On seeing the food, his dogs salivated. After a while, Pavlov just rang the bell and didn’t provide any food. The dogs still salivated because they now associated the ringing of the bell with food even when there was no food present. When marketers and advertisers discovered Pavlov’s research, they salivated. Find those — often subconscious — emotional triggers and ring that bell. The bell has been ringing ever since. However, in today’s media saturated, attention deficit world, customers are becoming more and more deaf and blind to these increasingly out-of-date techniques.

How does the traditional advertising industry respond? By ringing the bell louder. And by coming up with ever more clever techniques like “native advertising,” a type of advertising that pretends to be editorial copy. Before Volkswagen was almost suffocated by the diesel fumes scandal, it was happily pushing native advertising in magazines such as Wired, claiming “how diesel was re-engineered,” and how it had become “cleaner and more future forward.”

Advertising blindness

Traditional advertising and marketing are in denial and this is a challenge for you because it is often advertising and marketing that clutters and slows down the digital environment, increasing complexity and customer annoyance. “I love a great commercial as much the next person and am in awe of the creative and strategic minds that create them,” Winston Binch, Chief Digital Officer at Deutsch LA states. Now, only a delusional advertising mad man could possibly make a statement like that. Binch does realize that the times are changing, though. He suggests that “agencies need to make a greater case with clients for authenticity.” Agreed. But then he goes on to give an example of this “authenticity”. “Last year, our Super Bowl teaser for Volkswagen, ‘The Barkside,’ featured a bunch of dogs barking the theme to Star Wars. It didn’t include any product and received 14 million views in two weeks.” Authenticity?

Do these much vaunted Super Bowl ads actually work? “Meaning: do they generate sales or other value for the brands and companies that pay so much to have them produced and aired?” Marketingland asked in 2015. “The assumption is yes. But the empirical evidence suggests the opposite … There appears to be a profound disconnect between viewer enjoyment of the ads on game day and later buying behavior in the real world. A new survey conducted by Genesis Media found that nearly 90 percent of respondents said that they were unlikely to buy something tied to a Super Bowl ad; and roughly 75 percent of respondents said they couldn’t remember ads from last year.” Budweiser, which has had the second, third and fourth most watched Super Bowl ads, shipped 30 million barrels of beer in 2003, and just 16 million in 2013.

This is the dirty little secret of advertising. Great ads may have a “wow” factor but that often doesn’t create much real value for the client who pays for them, which is not surprising when you understand how a traditional advertiser thinks. A senior ad executive once told me that, “The whole purpose is to get our ads as talked about as possible.” He didn’t care about whether the ad helped sell more product. He just wanted people to talk about the ad itself. And companies pay for this stuff?

TV advertising was one-third as effective as it was in 1990, according to a study from McKinsey. “Top marketers these days are quick to point to an overarching trend in the industry,” Stephanie Walden wrote for Mashable in March 2015. “With the rise of public forums such as social media, fewer companies are finding success with ‘mass marketing’ tactics.”

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An example of banner blindness

For years, we have been observing customers as they use websites and apps. And there is one dominant trend: if it looks anything like marketing or advertising, a great number of people will avoid and ignore it. On one website, we tested “Task A”. It was a very important task for the organization, so they promoted it on the homepage. There was one huge banner dominating the page and a smaller banner in the right navigation, something like in the preceding image. Each banner had a nice smiling actor. Not one single person out of those we tested clicked on either of the banners, even though every single one of them spent a considerable amount of time on the page in question. Not one.

When we did some testing for Microsoft, we had the following task: “Does Microsoft support producing multiple copies of a Windows Embedded POSReady 2009 image, using cloning?” The answer was no. In fact, Microsoft felt that it was so important to tell the programmers that the answer was no that they made the answer a “Note” and placed it in the box in the middle of the page.

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MIcrosoft Embedded POSReady2009 image website page

Nearly all the programmers we tested found the right page and every single one of them who did said that the answer was yes. They were ignoring the note. It was something that was trying to get their attention, so they assumed it must contain useless information.

Advertising / marketing blindness will only grow as we have less and less attention to give and more and more things want to get that attention:

· A test of four separate page treatments by Tom Tullis, Marisa Siegel and Emily Sun found that the page with no images and no boxes got the most eye fixations.

· Another study by the same group of people for Fidelity Investments found that adding smiling faces reduced the credibility of the content in the eyes of customers.

· A study of eight versions of a particular page by GOV.UK requesting people to become organ donors found that the least effective page was the one with a group of people smiling. The most effective page had no image of people.

· A hairdressers in the UK placed a series of offers on its Facebook pages. One set of offers had professional pictures of women getting their hair done. The other had amateur pictures. The promotions with the professional pictures got 1 like and no clicks. The promotion with amateur pictures got 79 Likes and 521 clicks.

Sometimes, the customer wants to be fooled

It is not all marketing’s fault. Throughout history, people have often demanded that they be tricked and fooled. I talked to a content management software salesperson once who told me that there was a features race in his industry. Most of these features were unnecessary for the typical customer. In fact, they just made the software slower and less usable. But customers were demanding them. They judged quality based on the quantity of features. What was he to do? If he wanted to keep his job, he had to keep selling them a product they didn’t need, but one they adamantly said they wanted.

Ashley Madison is a site for older men who want to cheat on their wives with a younger woman. That’s why on the Ashley Madison homepage there is a huge picture of a beautiful young woman. It has been estimated that about 9 out of 10 of Ashley Madison’s members are men. Gizmodo reporter Annalee Newitz found out that the vast majority of these female “members” weren’t even real. After analysis, it was discovered that of the estimated 5 million female members, only 12,000 of them belonged to actual, real women. “Those millions of Ashley Madison men were paying to hook up with women who appeared to have created profiles and then simply disappeared,” Newitz wrote.

The facts are irrelevant to Ashley Madison men. They want to buy illusion. Most of us, at some stage in our lives, want to buy illusion. When margarine was first invented, it was colored yellow to make it look more like butter because people would not buy a white spread. On the other hand, white bread was all the rage because it was associated with the rich. Such bread could only be made from high quality flour. But poor people demanded white bread from their bakers, so bakers started coloring the low quality flour to get more white-looking bread.

In 1858, in Bradford, in the UK, 200 people were made sick and 20 died from eating lozenges. The sweets had been coated with arsenic. “The lozenge-maker had intended to adulterate his lozenges with plaster of Paris but had bought arsenic by mistake,” writes Bee Wilson in her excellent book on food adulteration called Swindled. Parents and kids were obsessed with the brightest colored sweets possible, and manufacturers obliged by coating sweets with various poisons.

Years ago, I remember having a conversation with a vegetable stall owner. He told me how it was very hard to sell organic vegetables. The organic carrots, for example, came in all shapes and sizes, but people only wanted the perfectly shaped carrots. People bought with their eyes. They still do, though less so. Organic vegetables and products are now being bought more because people are better educated and less driven by primitive emotions. The Web is the great educator and there is a global rise in awareness and consciousness. We are still driven by our emotions but we’re a little bit more in control now and that can make all the difference when it comes to the role of marketing. (Unless, of course, we’re an Ashley Madison marketer.)

From getting attention to giving attention

“About 90 percent of Google’s revenue is from ads, most of that on its search engine,” The New York Times stated in 2015. All those billions in revenue from those tiny, innocuous 17 words of text on the search results page? This is advertising like your parents weren’t used to.

The Google search engine is traditional advertising in reverse — the ads are actually useful, purposeful. That’s because when it comes to search advertising, the customer is the advertiser. When you go to Google, do you see traditional graphical ads blaring out at you trying to get your attention? No, just a search box. It’s waiting for you, the “advertiser.” It’s a blank page — a blank canvas — and you are in control. It’s waiting for you to make the first move.

You place an ad in the search box: “cheap flights Dublin.” The search engine notifies all those companies that sell flights that someone has placed an ad for a cheap flight to Dublin. These companies can then respond with an offer.

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Google homepage if it was designed by traditional organization

The above is what the Google homepage might look like if it was designed by most traditional marketing-driven organizations. It would be full of clutter, organization-centricity and advertising. Would this approach succeed?

New model marketing puts the customer — particularly the current customer — in control. It’s marketing that’s useful. It’s marketing that understands the top tasks of customers and helps them complete those tasks. It’s marketing that seeks to pay attention rather than get attention. Walmart’s “savings catcher” is a good example of this new approach. As Michael Schrage wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2015, “it promises shoppers that they will never overpay for purchasing at the store. By submitting their receipt through the app, Walmart customers receive credit in their account if the product was available for a lower price elsewhere.”

MeUndies makes men’s and women’s comfortable underwear. It doesn’t reward new customers, as the vast majority of traditional marketing campaigns do. Instead, it rewards loyal customers. “We found that if users signed up at full price, they were more likely to remain loyal than users who would sign up with a discount,” Dan King, head of business development, explains. “We then gave our ‘full price’ customers discount offers later to reward them for their loyalty, after we already had established a great relationship with them.” MeUndies now attracts new customers with a higher lifetime value.

Serve the customers’ journey

A key to the new model marketing is that you go on the journey the customer has decided to go on, rather than try and convince the customer to go on your “brand” journey. Once you are helping the customer complete their journey you may make helpful suggestions to them. Make the customer successful and they become a willing listener.

Sparebanken Sogn og Fjordane in Norway used to have a very traditional banking homepage. It was full of expensive, beautifully shot pictures of make-believe customers thoroughly enjoying themselves as a direct result of being Sparebanken customers. Marketing nirvana.

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Original marketing-led Sparebanken homepage

However, the page was so cluttered and full of jargon that real customers were having problems logging into their accounts. So, the bank did something radical. It removed all traditional marketing from the homepage and focused on the login process.

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New task-led Sparebanken homepage

When I show traditional bank executives the new page, they shudder. “But we have to have the ability to market to our customers,” they say. When I tell them that the new design resulted in a 500% increase in visits to the product pages, they simply won’t believe their eyes or the facts.

Sparebanken Sogn og Fjordane didn’t stop advertising. They just did it more cleverly. On the log out page, they placed a single, clear advertisement.

Customers had quickly and easily done what they needed to do. When they logged out, they were open to an offer, because their mind was open, because they had completed their task. This is what I call marketing at the end of the task.

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Sparebanken log out page

The end of the task is not the only place to communicate, of course. There are often logical progression points in tasks where appropriate communication can be very effective. This is what you have to design for. Go on the journey with the customer and make them more successful. We once worked for an electronics retailer, for example, and noticed that they didn’t have a clear “Buy” button at the bottom of their product pages. They had the “Buy” button at the top of the page but the product pages were often long. We got them to add the “Buy” button at the bottom of the page and sales doubled. Now, not many people got to the bottom of their product pages, but those that did tended to be very interested and ready to act. One of your greatest skills will be understanding the points in the digital journey when the person is ready to act. The Task Performance Indicator, which I will describe in detail later, is a method that helps you truly understand how customers behave in an online environment.

Make it easy

“Feeling overwhelmed, consumers want support — not increased marketing messages or ‘engagement’ — to more quickly and easily navigate the purchase process,” Corporate Executive Board (CEB) stated in a study it published in 2012. “Brands that help consumers simplify the purchase journey have customers who are 86 percent more likely to purchase their products and 115 percent more likely to recommend their brand to others.” In a study of 7,000 consumers, CEB found that 80% don’t want a relationship with a brand; they just want to get something done. In a study by Havas Media in 2013, over 90% of Western consumers said they wouldn’t care if most brands disappeared.

“Our research indicates that the impact of simplifying purchase decisions for consumers is four times stronger than the favored marketing strategy of engagement and is the number one driver of likelihood to buy,” said Patrick Spenner, managing director at CEB.

“Customers want ease. Getting back to their busy lives quickly matters more than anything”, Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman and Rick DeLisi write in the book, The Effortless Experience. “The greatest driver of disloyalty is the amount of effort you require your customers to put into their service experience. Customer effort includes repeat contacts, repeating information, channel switching (e.g. starting in Web and ending up on the phone), transfers, policies and procedures, and the general hassle factor that most service interactions create.”

In 2013, The Temkin Group found that IT professionals were 55% more likely to buy from tech vendors who made life very easy for them. Only 4% said they planned buying from vendors who were very difficult to deal with.

And still the old model organizations just want to add more products, more content, more features. Why do we add new features? Dharmesh Shah, founder of HubSpot asks. Often the reply is that “It just makes sense. You’re surprised that the product exists at all without this feature.” Or, “A big/important customer is asking for it.” Or, “It’s not that hard. I think our dev team can crank it out in a weekend.” Or, “A competitor just added it.” Or, “It will drive revenue! Your gut is telling you that more people will buy, more people will stay, or your existing customers will spend more money if you have this feature.”

While the benefits of adding new content and features can seem obvious to everyone, the costs are much less obvious. The first one is “Increase in setup time,” according to Shah. More configuration, more training, more time to sell, more time for the customer to understand.

This sort of cost often remains dormant initially. You add feature/content A and nothing bad happens. Then you add B, C, D, E … At some point you reach a tipping point of complexity. Things just get harder and you can’t pinpoint any one feature or piece of content as causing the problem. New features need to be promoted and this promotional content is often a huge annoyance for customers, usually getting in the way as they try and do things. But the biggest cost of all is that if a product or service is too complex with too many features, customers simply won’t use it.

This is why you need to measure use based on customer top tasks. You must figure out what is most critical to the customer and bring that up to maximum performance and then ensure it stays at maximum performance. Anything new added to the environment must prove that it is not interfering with the performance of the top tasks. You do that by constantly measuring the top tasks. Later, I’ll explain a method to clearly identify the top tasks of your customers and to measure how well they’re performing.

Make it fast

Digital speeds everything up. According to Statistic Brain, the average attention span in 2015 was 8.25 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000. (The average attention span of a gold fish is estimated at 9 seconds.)

· For every second faster was able to make its pages load, it had a 2% lift in conversions.

· Firefox reduced its page load time by 2.2 seconds and had 10 million extra downloads as a result.

· Bing, Yahoo and Google found that if a search page takes more than half a second longer to load than expected, there is a significant drop in advertising revenue.

Think about it. Less than half a second impacts revenue. As a result, Google recommends webpage load times of one second or less. Larry Page, founder of Google, is obsessed with speed. “Before Google launched Gmail in 2004, its creator, Paul Buchheit, brought it to Page’s open cubicle office for a review,” Nicholas Carlson wrote for Business Insider in 2014. “As Buchheit called the program up on Page’s computer, the boss made a face.

“It’s too slow,” Page said.

Buchheit disagreed. “It was loading just fine,” he said.

“No,” Page insisted. It had taken a full 600 milliseconds for the page to load.

“You can’t know that,” Buchheit said. But when he got back to his office, he looked up the server logs. It had taken exactly 600 milliseconds for Gmail to load. This is why Larry Page is so successful: he understands the preciousness of time — to the customer!

“We had a similar experience at,” Greg Linden of Amazon states. “In A/B tests, we tried delaying the page in increments of 100 milliseconds and found that even very small delays would result in substantial and costly drops in revenue.” Amazon is absolutely obsessed with reducing page loads and delivery times because it knows that this is the culture of “I want it now!” When Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos “received an email from a reader complaining about the time it took for the mobile app to load, he immediately fired off a note to the newspaper’s chief information officer,” Lukas Alpert and Jack Marshall wrote for the Wall Street Journal in 2015. “The message was simple: fix it.” The programmers got back to him and said they could maybe reduce the load time to two seconds. “It needs to be milliseconds,” was Bezos’ reply.

A primary responsibility for you will be managing the time of your customer. The more quickly your customers are able to complete their tasks, the more value you will create. Thus, you will need to measure customer time and the Task Performance Indicator will show you how to do that.

Be honest and transparent

When the 2007 financial crisis hit, the demand for home swimming pools plummeted. In Northern Virginia, River Pools and Spas was in deep trouble. By early 2009, orders were down from an average of six a month to less than two. Lots of people who had made orders were cancelling.

River Pools slashed its $250,000 advertising budget by 90% and focused its energies on its website with a radical strategy: answering customers’ most important questions (top tasks). “As a result,” according to a New York Times article in 2013, “River Pools has recovered to exceed its peak pre-2007 revenue.” When the Times asked co-owner, Marcus Sheridan how they had managed such an amazing turnaround, his answer was simple. “I just started thinking more about the way I use the Internet,” he said. “Most of the time when I type in a search, I’m looking for an answer to a specific question. The problem in my industry, and a lot of industries, is you don’t get a lot of great search results because most businesses don’t want to give answers; they want to talk about their company. So I realized that if I was willing to answer all these questions that people have about fiberglass pools, we might have a chance to pull this out.”

Marcus answered heretical questions such as:

· How much does a pool cost?

· What are the major problems and issues with fiber glass pools?

· How can I install it myself?

· Who are the competitors?

Pricing, troubleshooting, installation, competitors; these are classic customer tasks. In the chapter on customer task identification, I will give you a detailed method for assembling a comprehensive list of these tasks, and then getting customers to vote on this list, so as to identify the top tasks and the tiny tasks.

Let’s say Domino’s Pizza was described to you as “cardboard; mass produced, boring, bland.” How would you react? Let’s say these statements were made in a series of advertisements by Domino’s starting in 2009. What would you think? AdAge was not impressed. “Domino’s does itself a disservice by coming clean about its pizza,” it complained. Can’t have that, now AdAge, can we? Wow, truth in advertising, what a scary concept.

In 2010, Dominos U.S. sales were up for the first time since 2007. Between 2010 and 2015, its stock price grew at a phenomenal rate, going from $13 to $104, a 650% return on investment. “People are tired of companies talking at them instead of with them,” Patrick Doyle, the CEO of Domino’s, told TIME magazine. “The old rule of thumb for companies used to be that for every complaint you hear, people are telling 10 other people. Well, those were the days when people were having one-on-one communications. Brands, because of their big marketing budgets, could overwhelm consumers with the volume of their message. Now, if a customer has a bad experience, it’s immediately on Facebook or Twitter. Hundreds or thousands of people hear about it. You’ve got to adapt and understand that’s the dynamic out there. It’s pretty powerful.”

Yes, it is a powerful dynamic. And the opportunities are very significant for those organizations who can embrace the new model of truthfulness, service, ease-of-use and speed. Those that can’t will have to deal with the Millennial Attitude.


Wilson, B. Swindled. From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee — The Dark History of the Food Cheats, John Murray Publisher, London, 2008.

Dixon, M., Toman, N. & DeLisi, R. The Effortless Experience: Conquering the New Battleground for Customer Loyalty, Your Coach in a Box, Mar. 2014

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