Rise above the Noise

Amine Ketz
May 8, 2018 · 16 min read

The impact of Attention scarcity on the digital economy.

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Have you ever had a conversation in which some old movie was mentioned, something like “Fight Club” or maybe even something more obscure?

You laughed about it, quoted lines from it, wondered what happened to the actors you never saw again, and then you forgot about it. Until…

You are flipping channels one night and all of a sudden you see “Fight club” is playing. Weird. The next day you are reading a news story, and out of nowhere it mentions forgotten movies from the 1990s, and holy shit, three paragraphs about Fight Club. You pass an ad in the subway for the new Brad Pitt movie, and then one of your friends sends you a meme showing chickens street-fighting.

What is happening here? Is the universe trying to tell you something? No.

This is called the frequency illusion.

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Since the party and the conversation where you and your friends took turns saying “ya-ya know the two rules ?” you’ve flipped channels plenty of times, you’ve walked past lots of billboards, you’ve seen dozens of stories about celebrities, you’ve been exposed to a handful of movie trailers. The thing is, you disregarded all the other information, all the stuff unrelated to “Fight Club”. Out of all the chaos, all the morsels of data, you only noticed the bits which called back to something sitting on top of your brain.

It is tempting to say that we choose to pay attention to certain things.

In fact, we don’t. Sometimes things just pop out.

We are predetermined to pay attention to certain types of information over others. For example, our biology tells us to notice moving objects over static ones, for survival purposes. That’s an unconscious process.

The same phenomenon happens everyday. On our newsfeed.

Do you remember all the content you saw this week on Facebook, Instragram, LinkedIn, Messenger and co .. ? No. It’s just impossible to recall most of them.

Thousands of dollars are spent everyday on marketing budgets to create.. average, boring content. A content nobody pay attention to. Or remember.

That’s the hard truth.

This made me wonder: how to make content that scientifically drives people attention ? How to maximise our chances to stand out ? To make an impact ?

A story of Attention

While the internet has created a low barrier to entry for businesses, it’s also created a world where new social media channels are popping up all the time. Platforms are all competing hard nowadays.

Inside every one of them, companies are also fighting for the audience. For people’s attention. This gets though.

That is why I tried to forget the classical Growth framework and focus on something that cannot always be measured: what is happening inside our minds.

I started to think about the whole process, taking it from a user perspective.

Do people experience different levels of mental engagement with social media content ? Definitely, there is a path. Can we have an impact on it ? Improve it ?

Yes, if we deconstruct the whole process. Turns out, it’s as simple as follow:

  • I’m scrolling on Instragram, almost on autopilot. Passing through hundreds of pictures. Stopping time to time. As this bunch of pictures reached my newsfeed, I saw them, consciously or not. First step.
  • Sometimes, a picture makes me stop for a while. Don’t know why. Maybe the bright colors ? Maybe the smiling face ? Whatever, I notice some of them because they took my attention. Second step.
  • The picture was about a nice donut in a parisian coffeeshop ? I love donuts ! As I stare at the picture, I’m thinking “next time I want to sit in a coffeeshop in Paris, I may try this one”. That’s for the third step.
  • I’m involved in freelancer groups on social medias. Time to time, I answer practical questions, like “do you recommend coffeeshops in Paris ?”. Guess what I’m gonna do ? Fourth, and last step.

I tried to summarize this, in what I call the Attention Funnel:

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Lets get into the details.

1 — Be seen

The first step looks obvious, but is mandatory: reach the screen. Because, uh .. if we don’t do that, nobody will see the beautiful content we spent hours on. Would be such a pitty, right ?

The most relevant diffusion channels for your business will depend on what you do. Who is your business aimed for ? I often see companies getting into Twitter, Instagram or Linkedin.. just for the sake of it.

Be where your customers are.

Define well your audience, your niche (demographics, interests, ..) and create accurate customer personas. Think about the other apps they would be using, the way they share information, and every detail that can make a difference in the way you reach them or speak to them.

No need to say that if you pay sponsored ads, this is even more important.

Then, for every channel, crack the code of its ranking algorithm.

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The idea is to get familiar with the specificities of every plaftorm, from the number of required likes in the first 15 minutes to fire up, to the fact that embedded articles get more organic reach, .. and keep following algorithm updates, making sure you are always on top.

I cannot get into more details about the exact numbers for every platform, for confidentiality purposes and because they keep changing with time.

As an example, Facebook’s 2018 top raking factors are: comments (and replies), likes (special reactions such as “love” get better ranking) and shares, especially if shared through Messenger.

But there are less important ranking signals still worth noting, as the average time spent on content or the moment of posting.

Simple rule: posts getting early interaction get more reach.

That’s why you shouldn’t do it alone. Create a strong base group around your product. This can be friends, colleagues, fans or even paid people .. making sure your content gets out the noise.

An important part of your time spent on social media should be dedicated to nurturing your network. There are different ways to grow your reach:

  • Position yourself as a reference in Facebook groups (specialized/niche)
  • Approach 30.000 “qualified” connexions on LinkedIn
  • Establish genuine relationships, or even pay influencers, ..

Once you make sure your content is going to hit the newsfeed, there is place for the most interesting part: grabbing attention.

2 — Be noticed

On Facebook mobile Newsfeed, people spend on average 1.7 seconds with a piece of content. The world is vast, but our attention is finite.

As a result, we use selective attention (Moran & Desimone). Our eyes perceive everything, but only a fraction of those stimuli enter our consciousness.

In fact, that’s the mechanism behind subconscious influence. Our eyes perceive more stimuli than we can process. Thus, some stimuli enter our brain in priority. This phenomenon is rooted in our biology, in the behavior that helped our ancestors survive.

We can identify and use this stimuli, as they can influence our perception and behavior. And help our content stand out. This part has been made with the help of Nick Kolenda, expert in neuromarketing.

These are the stimuli that drive our attention system :

  • Stimuli 1: Salience
  • Stimuli 2: Motion
  • Stimuli 3: People & animals
  • Stimuli 4: Spatial cues
  • Stimuli 5: High emotions
  • Stimuli 6: Unpredictability
  • Stimuli 7: Self Relevance

Note: people are receptive to this stimuli when they aren’t searching for something specific, then they’re using bottom-up attention.

Like scrolling the News feed.

If people are searching for something particular, they’re using top-down attention. Remember Fight Club ? The idea then, would be to make your target similar to their goal.

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Our ancestors needed to detect salient stimuli. Without that ability, we died. And that’s no good. Think about a predator hiding in the bush.

These 3 factors (color, orientation and size) are additive (Nothdurft). More factors will grab more attention.

Color might be the most salient dimension. If you want the nitty gritty, females are more likely to notice red stimuli (Regan).

Tip: choose a color that contrasts with the environment.

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Another tip: Add an entry point in your graphics.

If everything is equally vibrant in your graphics, there’s no saliency. Nothing is pulling attention. Instead, add a focal area. Pinpoint the most important area of your design. Then increase its saliency (or, if you want, reduce the saliency of surrounding areas).

Another tip: Add visual distinctions to high ROI products

Attention is correlated with choice. People are more likely to choose an option if they spend more time looking at it (Atalay, Bodur, & Rasolofoarison).

That’s why some restaurants add color distinctions to high ROI items on the menu. You should do the same with pricing plans.

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Motion is not really a category by itself. It’s a form of saliency.

However, it is powerful. So it deserves one by itself.

“The potential behavioral urgency of a stimulus might contribute to whether or not it captures attention.” Franconeri & Simons

There are different types of motions. :

Tip: Start Facebook videos by zooming in

People include motion toward the beginning of their videos — in hopes to capture attention. They might push in titles from the side. Or they might zoom outward. That’s nice.

But try looming motion instead. Expand your titles from smaller to larger. Or zoom inward to enlarge an object.

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Biological motion is powerful. But you can also capture attention through static images of people.

Consider experiments on change detection.

In some studies, researchers made small changes to an image. And they measured if (or when) people noticed the changes. Ro, Russell, and Lavie found that people can detect changes in faces more easily than in other objects (like, clothes).

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The pictures talk for themselves.

For example, we developed the ability to detect eyes more easily. That mechanism is called the Eye Direction Detector, or EDD (Baron-Cohen).

Tip: Show people looking at your CTA (or baseline).

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According to most marketers, emotion captures attention.

Unfortunately, that’s wrong. Some emotions capture attention. But not all. It depends on arousal. Barrett and Russell argue that emotion has two dimensions (arousal, and valence) where all emotions can fit, as follows :

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Anderson found that high arousal emotions — and ONLY high arousal emotions — capture attention. Those emotions occupy the top half of the structure. Why ? Again, because of our biology.

Thanks to evolution, we developed a fear module (Öhman & Mineka). Our brain nonconsciously scans the environment, searching for threats. If it detects a threat, it triggers a defense before conscious attention.

Sexual stimuli are also hard-wired into our attention system (Most). For more details about this part, I wrote an article about it.

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If stimuli don’t help people reach their goals, they stop noticing them.

Banner ads are a great example. To overcome banner blindness (or other forms of habituation), you need something unpredictable. Unpredictably activates the amygdala by capturing attention (Herry).

Taboo words capture more attention than emotional words (Mathewson, Arnell, & Mansfield). This category includes profanity or expletives.

Novelty is a double-edged sword:

  • On one hand, novelty captures attention.
  • But people don’t like novelty. They like familiarity (Winkielman)

So what should you do? Try combining with familiar stimuli. Consider anthropomorphism. This concept gives human qualities to inanimate objects or animals.

Tip : Use the Pique Technique to overcome Popup Blindness

Habituation also occurs with requests. Over time, we develop a standard refusal. If a passerby asks for money, most people immediately decline. It’s a reflex.

However, Santos, Leve, and Pratkanis found a solution: the pique technique.

The researchers received more money when they asked for an unusual amount (eg 37 cents) rather than a typical amount (eg 25 cents, 50 cents).

Because the request was novel, it prevented a mindless refusal. It forced people to consciously evaluate the request. You could use that technique to prevent popup blindness.

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You probably experienced the cocktail party effect (Moray, sisi). You could be engulfed in a conversion. But if someone nearby mentions your name, your attention system slaps you in the face.

In terms of strength, faces and names are equally powerful (Tacikowski & Nowicka). But there is a catch: the Newsfeed is not the perfect spot for using that type of stimuli. Even if you manage to do that, it would be creepy.

What about Mental interaction ? Essentially, people prefer an image when they imagine themselves interacting with it.

For example, Elder and Krishna found that people were more likely to buy a mug when the handle was position toward the right — toward the dominant hand of most people.

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Note that the effect disappeared when participants were holding something in their right hand (because they couldn’t mentally interact with it).

Whenever you want to capture attention, think of ways to incorporate one or a few stimuli from this article. Seriously, don’t go overboard.

When you add too much stimuli into one image, you destroy the most important trait: salience. Simpler is usually better.

3 — Be recalled

We have people’s full attention. Congrats, we did the job. Those who are contempt with a finished job, you’re free to go home. Guiltless.

The others, listen well. Magics happens when we go a bit further than a job well done: a great piece of content is a content that sticks in the mind.

A content people remembers.

Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.

Ever heard about this story ?

That’s it: people remember what they do. And they remember stories.

As we saw earlier, the more you engage your audience, the more you reach. But that’s not all. Engaging is also a way to stick in the mind of your audience, as they get active in your posts, they remember them better.

Ask for opinion. This is likely to generate longer and more nuanced answers that regular comments. You can for exemple leverage trending topics.

Create polls. An immediate way for your audience to play an active role on your social media and interact with your brand.

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User-generated content. people like to see their own work featured, especially by brands they admire. Always a great idea to encourage it.

Host a live Q&A. Ask your audience for questions beforehand, and request more questions during the live video.

Create contests. People love to win things, and will often do whatever they need to do to win. Create a contest that offers an alluring prize, with simple entry guidelines. Once your audience is hooked by the end goal, make sure they have plenty of opportunity to engage with your brand along the way.

Engagement baits. A significant number (28% of the top 500) of the most engaging companies on Facebook rely on so-called “engagement baits”: spammy posts containing call-to-action taglines, such as “vote with reactions” or “comment YES if you agree.” This has been proven to be very effective.

Working at TEDx and watching hundreds of videos unveiled me the secret behind delivering great talks. How do TED talks manage to stand out ? What is the common factor that makes them so captivating?

In one word, storytelling.

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People are hardwired to listen to stories. Stories are the way human knowledge was passed down before the written word. It’s the natural way that our brains learn and process information.

What makes great stories so powerful is their stickiness, their ability to form a very strong mental image in our heads. Hearing ideas under the form of a story makes them easier to understand and more likely to influence.

They allow you to share your message without your audience feeling like you’re preaching to them, which in turn makes it easier for them to accept your message.

These are a few takeaways to delivering a great story :

- Think about a conflict. A story without conflict is not a very exciting one. If there’s no conflict, there’s no mystery and no suspense. A conflict creates a desire to know “What will happen next” and keeps the audience engaged.

- Use personal stories. Personal stories are powerful because they give the audience new material. Your story will be new to your audience, which makes it interesting to hear. And improves your delivery.

- Be positive. In positive stories, the character manages to overcome the conflict, and changes for the better as a result. This type of stories shows the audience what they should do and leaves them on a high emotional note.

- Paint mental images in their heads. Follow the principle of showing rather than telling, as “people don’t remember what you say, they remember what they see when you say it”. Provide specific, sensory details to make things come alive in your audience’s minds.

The secret to turning your stories into mental movies for your audience is to make sure your scene is rich in sensory inputs. There are four senses that you need to cover: Visual, Auditory, Kinesthetic and Smell (VAKS). It is recommended that you do cover at least three out of the four VAKS in order to fully transport your audience into your story.

If you manage to add engagement or storytelling in your content, you may rock hard in the subconscious mind of your social media fans.

They will remember you.

And if they remember you, they may talk about you.

4 — Be advocated

There is no one better than your satisfied consumers to tell how good your product is. Seriously, that’s the Social media Graal.

Why ? Consumers are influenced by other people more than they realize.

According to the Wall Street Journal, social norms influence consumption behavior and even private interests, including one’s taste in music. This is what makes the concept of social proof a powerful one.

Neuroscience describes social proof as a psychological phenomenon in which people follow the actions of others in an effort to reflect what is considered correct behavior for any given situation — including online experiences. Simply put, social proof influences people’s decisions on how they should behave.

According to YouGov, 78% of consumers in the United States read reviews before making a purchase decision. This report reinforces findings in a previous study that found that 87 percent of consumers trust online reviews as much as they trust friends and family.

Customers who are vocal online can influence others’ attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. While there’s no way to control what people say about your business online or offline, you do have the power to change the conversation.

Outside of the food and hospitality industry, it can be a real struggle for businesses to get reviews. Consumers don’t typically review other business types that they interact with, unless something goes wrong.

For business owners, this disparity between offline and online reputation is beyond frustrating. So what’s a business owner or general manager to do when they find themselves in this situation?

Ask customers for reviews.

First, try to figure out the customer touch points and who within the company builds the deepest relationship with the customer. That is likely the person who should be asking for reviews.

But in some instances, email may be your only option.

Here are some of the best practices for your email request letter:

  • Have the email come from a real person’s email address
  • Have a very clear call-to-action link/button.
  • Test using a plain-text email versus an HTML email.

As with any good campaign, test everything until you’re getting the best conversion-to-review rate possible (not just open rate). Email will almost never perform as well as asking in person, but it can still be very effective at scale.

Tip: Ask happy customers for reviews. Tinder is a very good example of applying this strategy: they ask you for a review just after a new match. They choose the best moment possible, when they are sure you experience a pleasant moment using their app.

Another tip: The Waiter Trick, one of those review growth hacks that can work really great in particular industries. The strategy is that someone who has spent time with a customer, asks for a review this way: “if you had a good experience and include my first name in the review, the company gives me a 5$ tip.”

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This gives a customer an extra incentive to leave an online review, particularly if she or he had a good experience. If used well, it can be a very powerful trick.

Another tip: Having industry experts take over your social media profiles can be a great way to tap into their influence and the positive association their followers have with anything they do (halo effect).

Zen tip: how to deal with bad reviews ? Apologize.

Even if you didn’t make any mistake, apologize and thank the reviewer for taking time to tell you what he or she thinks. Social proof is most potent when you’re able to turn unhappy customers into loyal fans. If someone wrote a harshly unfair comment and gave your business a low rating, keep your head up, say sorry, and tell them you hope they’ll come back so you can offer a better experience.


If you made it to this point, congrats.

This article is aimed to be an introduction to neuromarketing. Hope I managed to share with you my curiosity and passion for this field, and would be happy if you get into the details I mentioned. And look for more tips.

This is a dynamic process, as the internet rules are changing every day and neuroscience is constantly improving.

Knowing the rules of how our brains work allow us to make the most out of this powerful tool that are Social Medias. An environment of uncertainty, highly competitive, but full of opportunities to stand out.

If you manage to cut through the noise.

For questions or precisions, feel free to contact me: BLDis.fr or on Linkedin.

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