holding attention with your small business marketing

The 10 Minute Rule For Keeping Audience Attention

Gee RanasinhaMarketing

For the past four years I’ve been lecturing on digital marketing at a university in Strasbourg (long term readers may remember me writing about it here).

My students will tell you that my class is very different to the other lectures they attend. In fact it’s probably fair to say my course isn’t like any class they’ve ever taken anywhere. Ever.

There’s shouting, humor, and vulgarity. There’s music and video. Yes, I sometimes jump on tables and hand out candy when students actively participate. There was the time I let off an air horn during class (much to the dismay of other lecturers having classes at the same time), receiving a different kind of blast from the Dean later that day.

But away from the showbiz, flashing lights, and explosions, perhaps the thing students remark most upon is the format of my lectures. Not because my presentations are unbelievably awesome and super interesting (which, of course, they most certainly are) but that they’re peppered with commercial breaks.

Yes, I have ad breaks in my presentations.

Every 45-60 minutes or so during my lectures, just for a couple of minutes, I switch things around. Just when I’m getting into the swing of things about web design, social media, conversion rate optimization, or whatever; I’ll stick in an ad break.

OK, so I shouldn’t really call them ‘ad’ breaks – it’s not like I have sponsors. The breaks are diversions to the main subject matter. I’ll stick in a funny video, maybe a meme or two, and then get back to the topic at hand. You could liken the breaks to the amuse-bouche micro-treats you’re served at fancy restaurants between courses – except you’re getting them while still tucking into your meal.

Why do I stick ad breaks into my lectures? Because of two well-known and proven psychological characteristics.

You Only Notice It When You’re Aware Of It

Supposing you’re looking to buy a new car. After doing your research, you come to a decision on the make and model you want. For example, let’s say you’ve decided to buy a BMW 3 series.

The next day you’re out and about, running some errands. You stop at the traffic lights, when all of a sudden someone in a BMW 3 series pulls-up right next to you. Wow, what a coincidence! A little later, you turn the corner and a 3 series Beemer passes you, going in the other direction. All of a sudden it seems that everywhere you go, a 3 series is never far away. Seeing so many examples of Bavarian engineering at its finest helps to assure you that you’ve made the right decision.

This effect is called the Frequency Illusion, also sometimes referred to as the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. It’s caused by two separate psychological processes: “Selective Attention” and “Confirmation Bias”.

Selective Attention is when you’re exposed to a new word, idea, or object that resonates with you for some reason. It sneaks into your psyche where, unconsciously, you keep an eye out for the next time it appears on your radar. As a result, you run into it more often than you would have otherwise believed.

Confirmation Bias is the reassurance you feel at each sighting, as it supplies additional proof of your opinion or belief about something (even to the point when you ignore contradictory information). You instinctively – and often unconsciously – overestimate the value of that information. The more cynical might paraphrase Confirmation Bias as “Say it enough times, in enough places, and people will believe it.”

The Greater The Attention, The Greater The Retention

The ingestion and recollection of information is only partly due to the amount of time we devote to something. Another factor is how much of our conscious mind we devote to the subject matter concerned, more commonly known as ‘concentration’. The more concentration – or attention – we pay to something, the longer and deeper we retain that information.

The problem is that, when a passive participant, our brain rarely maintains this level of attention for any length of time. Our minds are prone to wander. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been sat in a meeting, conference, or presentation; only to suddenly realize that I can’t recall anything that’s been said in the past half-hour. Sound familiar?

The 10 Minute Attention Rule

Unless the particular subject matter is deemed to be extra-ordinarily interesting or emotive, our brains are hard-wired to ignore most stimuli after about 10 minutes. The current thinking as to why this happens is in order to give the brain a break. Our brains are subject to so much sensory input every minute of every waking hour, that we need to prioritize stuff. This goes back to evolutionary reasons. If an influence is not deemed threatening or sufficiently intellectually involving, then our minds tune it out. No-one really knows why the timer seems to be set at around 10 minutes.

If we’re genuinely interested in something, however, the 10 minute rule doesn’t apply. Anyone who’s ever been engrossed in what they perceive to be an engaging activity – a great book, movie, video game, hobby, whatever – knows how time flies by.

So what does all of this mean in terms of marketing your business?

In Order To Be Noticed, You Need To Be Seen

Sounds obvious, right? Yet companies of every size and type continue to fall into the same trap – only to wonder why their marketing isn’t working.

Most business marketing initiatives adopt a ‘safe’ position. They’re inoffensive, but unremarkable. As a result they’re seen by audiences as an intrusion, annoyance, and inconvenience. They may be visible, but they’re rarely remembered.

The only way to be noticed is to be seen. Really seen – where your audience devotes enough attention to your message that it’s absorbed and recalled when required. There are two ways to achieve this. One is by having your communication seen often and regularly (e.g. advertising) aka Confirmation Bias.

The other is by standing-out. By being seen as exceptional, unusual, valuable, different– even polarizing. By featuring a chicken when advertising your car, or questioning social attitudes when promoting toiletries. By jumping on tables and putting ad breaks in presentations.

By zigging, while everyone else is zagging.

About the Author
Avatar for Gee Ranasinha

Gee Ranasinha

Gee Ranasinha is CEO and founder of KEXINO. He's been a marketer since the days of 56K modems, lectures on marketing and behavioral economics at two European business schools, and was noted as one of the top 100 global business influencers by sage.com (those wonderful people who make financial software).

Originally from London, today Gee lives in a world of his own in Strasbourg, France, tolerated by his wife and teenage son.

Find out more about Gee at kexino.com/gee-ranasinha. Follow him on X/Twitter at KEXINO, on Facebook at facebook.com/ranasinha, or on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/ranasinha.


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