The sippy cup followed a near-perfect arc across the busy coffee shop as it traveled from frustrated toddler to startled customer, sprinkling apple juice on everything in its path. The mum, balancing a baby and a smoothie, apologized as best she could and made a hasty exit, explaining that he just wanted her attention and was not in the habit of throwing juice at strangers. Poor kid. He just wanted what marketers and communicators everywhere want: the undivided attention of another person.

The economist Herbert Simon famously observed that an abundance of information creates a concomitant scaricity of attention, which explains the whole attention economy thing, in which brands spend a lot less time working on great information and a lot more time trying to get the attention of consumers. But just as the paparazzi yelling out celebrity names doesn’t generally get much response, neither does the increasingly bullshit-coated attempts to lure consumers in with the One Weird Trick to Reduce Mouldy Jam or the Secret Morning Routines of Rich People.

attention bizmarketer elizabeth williams

Some suggest we have developed the attention spans of goldfish, which is reductionist twaddle, of course. We’re perfectly able to focus on one thing for long periods of time. If you are in any doubt, just watch the idiots walking along the street while they watch an entire episode of Game of Thrones without ever looking up (to the Throner in Montreal whom I pulled out of an intersection before the bus hit him, you’re welcome).

Attention Deficits Abound

So the issue is not a lack of attention, but a lack of attention to our stuff that is the problem. Sadly, most brands default to the thrown sippy cup solution. That is, it’s apparently necessary to make a lot of noise, interrupt a lot of people and hope the sticky residue is enough to earn you a tiny piece of someone’s awareness. Among the many problems with this approach is that, unlike the mum, we don’t get to slip out of the market; we just get to throw more and bigger sippy cups at people.

On the internal communications side, we generally don’t have the budget for a sippy cup, so we make do with email, email with little exclamation marks, posters, balloons, intranets nobody visits and collaboration platforms nobody can figure out how to use.

All of this makes sense if we are convinced our audience is a tank of goldfish. Now, I don’t imagine it’s difficult to measure the attention span of a goldfish, but I do think it’s fascinating to figure out what that fish thinks is interesting to begin with. How long can dehydrated bits of krill and a plastic castle possibly be relevant once basic needs are met?

Relevance Drives Attention

Similarly, human attention isn’t so much about getting it, but keeping it, and that depends less on spectacle and apple juice than on relevance, importance and urgency. When we factor in these elements, our coffee shop group gets a lot smaller. That is, if the people who don’t care about our message at all leave the shop, and then the ones who might care but have other stuff to care about also leave the shop, followed by those who may care a whole lot but who don’t feel any need to act, then we have a very small, but highly attentive group of people left to talk to. We don’t need to bonk them on the head with a sippy cup to have the conversation.

How, then, do we help the people who ought to leave find the door so we can have a lovely chat with the intended target for our message? That’s where we need actual people to help out. In the case of marketing messages, that means our ssalespeopleor our front-line customer people. For employee communications, that would be our team leaders and other front-line managers.

When they were showing that poor goldfish flash cards of Lear jets, I wonder if they were showing his or her friends, too. Did the whole aquarium debrief after the testing to discuss whether the aerator in the corner is more or less interesting than the friendly cartoon dog? For sure if that aquarium had been full of people, there would have been a pretty diverse set of opinions about what was interesting, relevant, important and urgent.

A good sales person will know to separate the merely interested from the people for whom the information is also relevant. They will be able to help them understand whether or not that relevant thing is also important and, thus, worthy of a bit more attention and a bit more conversation. Where they can also establish urgency, the day gets a lot brighter because that combination generally leads to a sale, or at least a nice big step toward a sale.

On the internal side, the sales people for our messages are the front line managers. Write this down. It’s not the C-suite that convinces employees about relevance; it’s their immediate boss, with the help of co-workers and the rumour mill (I know, I know, your organization has no such thing). A good supervisor knows how to point at, but not dwell on the interesting bits, how to elevate the relevant so it’s at least considered; how to drive home the need to pay attention to the important stuff and, of course, how to incite an actual action where it’s urgent.

The way these audience-facing folks know how to do that is they are prepared. Next time you’re figuring out how to grab the attention of a customer or an employee, figure out what your audience needs to know to decide whether something is relevant, important or urgent. Then give those front-line sales people and managers the information they need to land your messages in front of the right goldfish and get the desired action.

The alternative, sadly, is flinging sippy cups. If you’re still doing that, I know a kid with a great arm.