Entertainment, utility and the interest graph are the solution to marketing challenges

E-Marketer worries that too many screens and distractions fragment our attention

I had an interesting interview yesterday with E-Marketer. They’re working on a project to explore the implications of too many screens and too little attention. It appears that consumers these days are flipping through digital pages on their iPad or fiddling with an app on their smartphone when they’re supposed to be paying attention to the TV commercials. What’s a marketer to do?

Interestingly the questions alone suggested that too many of us are still stuck in an old way of thinking and aren’t leaping quickly enough onto the newer platforms that call for engagement and collaboration rather than advertising.

The questions

“Should advertisers be trying to elevate a consumer’s attention level? Or should they instead accommodate themselves to current behavior and try to craft messages that will make a positive impression even if the consumer isn’t paying much attention?”

“Research has shown that many consumers check their e-mail during them commercial breaks of TV shows they’re watching. If they’re not looking at the TV screen but haven’t bothered to mute the sound while the commercial pod is on, does this mean that (for reaching this segment of the audience) the sound track is more important than the visual element of a commercial?”

“In the age of distraction, does consumption of ad content need to be more a lean-back activity (thus accommodating other simultaneous media usage) or can it be a more immersive, lean-forward activity?”

 A response

Such questions suggest that marketers are still in the business of buying attention. Fat chance. The idea of actually creating a more memorable soundtrack because someone’s looking down at their iPad instead of up at the screen in hopes of securing recall is ludicrous while the thought of making a positive impression on someone who isn’t paying attention strikes me as incomprehensible.

There are three things we can do, however. The first is simple. Be so damn interesting and entertaining that consumers not only welcome out content, they seek it out and pass it on. This is hard, but essential. The more choice a viewer has the better an ad has to be.

The second, of course, is to forget all about buying attention and focus entirely on adding value through utility. Years ago when we had no remote control to save us Charmin’ could force Mr. Whipple into our living room. Today, however, the brand has graduated to utility like Sit or Squat, an iPhone app that crowdsources the locations of clean, public restrooms. Clearly a better way to think about the second or third screen is to create content that considers context.

The third, and perhaps most promising approach is to go where we’re wanted. If a marketer is paying attention at all he or she knows that the newest trend in digital behavior is the interest graph – new platforms that encourage consumers to express their interests (Pinterest) and better yet their intentions (Springpad*) in ways that practically invite brands to connect, inspire and incent people who actually want their presence.

Granted the latter once again calls for marketers and advertisers to learn new tactics, master yet another form of conversation and figure out how to add value on a user’s term (hint: that requires more than simply posting your content on those platforms or adding a “spring me” or “pin me” button to your site) but who wouldn’t make the effort if there’s access to people who opt in. (I’ll be writing and speaking more about this over the next few months.)

As we’ve discussed lots of times, advertising in its traditional form won’t go away. At least not enirely. But thinking that we can meet the challenge of new behaviors and technologies by simply moving old tactics to new mediums is a sure way to accelerate its ineffectiveness.

*Note that in addition to my job as chief innovation officer at Mullen, I also work as CMO for Springpad, thanks in great part to Mullen’s willingness to let me experiment more and explore the startup world.




Low attention processing:


I would argue advertising is still very much in the business of buying attention, for better or worse, the necessity of reach/penetration and scale means it shall ever be thus. Go and ask 100 regular punters what Pinterest is and I think you will receive a giant shrug.

edwardboches moderator

@eloch Agree. But I am not with EMarketer on this. Problem isn't screens or technology. It's understanding new social behavior and relationships to content. Real thing moving forward is all about connecting around expressed interest and intent. I'm going to guess, along with Google, FB, Pinterest, and most of Silicon Vally that whoever wins there wins.