Demystifying the psychology of attention | Turtl
Your complete guide to winning more of your audiences' precious time
*Issue 1* Demystifying the psychology of attention
Your complete guide to winning more of your audiences' precious time
*WELCOME* Paying attention? 👀
About this guide and series
We're all constantly flooded with adverts, messaging, and content. As a result, attention is an increasingly rare and valuable commodity.
So, is there a proven way to cut through the noise and pull our audiences closer? Can we leverage psychology to acquire and retain attention more reliably? And what business results can we expect from doing so?
Watch this quick 60 second into from Nick Mason, CEO at Turtl
In this issue you'll learn...
We'll take a look at "The Attention Economy", the thinking behind it, and how leading research shows strong connections between increases in attention and propensity to buy.
We'll take a deep dive into the psychology of attention and explore how motivation, imagery, and even meatballs (yes, meatballs!) can lead to surprising business outcomes.
We'll put all the theory to the test in a rigorous, third-party study to answer the key question: "Can we engineer our marketing efforts to acquire and retain attention better?"
Finally, we'll share some tips to help you start to apply these ideas to your own marketing.
*EXPLORE* Why does attention matter? 💭
The impact of attention on content effectiveness
Content is king
The famous statement made by Bill Gates in 1996 rings truer with every passing day. We all know that modern customers demand the right content at every step of their journey to stay informed, navigate crowded marketplaces, and make better decisions.
Yet how many of us really understand the science behind what makes “great” content? How many of us are clear on the true value of reader attention and how to get more of it? And how many of us really understand the underlying psychology behind content engagement and influence?
Over the following pages, we’ll take a closer look at these subjects, examine the relevant research and psychology, and come to some actionable conclusions about how we can capture more attention, engagement, and business value through the content we all produce.
So let's dive in…
The attention economy
Never before in history have so many people had access to so much choice.
Every single day, we are each inundated with hundreds – if not thousands – of options for what to read, what to watch, what to eat, what to listen to, and what to spend our time and money on. Even a king or queen at the turn of the 20th century had nothing like the range of choice we each take for granted every single day of our lives in the 21st century.
And this range of choice is forever expanding and diversifying as the world around us becomes more connected, markets mature, and new, innovative providers spring up in every corner to meet unfulfilled needs.
On the one hand, this is excellent for business – we can now connect instantly with many thousands of new potential customers around the world who were previously inaccessible to us.
On the other hand, this is terrible for business – because so can our competitors!
As a result, every business on the planet finds itself engaged in a continually evolving battle for the same thing: your attention.
Because if we are to thrive in this ever-more connected and accessible global marketplace, we need to be seen, heard, and recognized before we can begin building the relationships we need to grow our businesses.
After all, if you don’t have someone’s attention, how can you build a relationship with them?
It’s tempting to think that an intuitive understanding of “attention” is enough to allow us to begin planning how to get more of it. However, many traditional or obvious measures of attention and engagement can be incredibly misleading.
Simplistic metrics such as clicks, opens, and downloads have been used for decades as a way of measuring attention and engagement. But these low-resolution metrics will, at best, mask reality and, at worst, lead us in totally the wrong direction.
Take the following real-world example: Company A spends $100 on Twitter adverts and $100 on LinkedIn adverts to promote a downloadable piece of content. After a week, they observe that each download from Twitter is costing them $1 and each download from LinkedIn is costing them $5. Very rationally, Company A redistributes their spend in favour of Twitter.
Makes perfect sense, right?
Wrong. What Company A couldn’t see is that while downloads sourced from Twitter were costing a fifth of those from LinkedIn, readers from this channel were reading the content for just a tenth of the time compared to a LinkedIn reader.
This is just one simple example of how attention is a tricky thing to measure and often eludes the metrics we typically have in place in our businesses.
So, how should we measure attention – and start thinking about how to improve it – if not through our familiar old metrics? Luckily, others have trodden this path before us.
In 2019, Dentsu Aegis launched “The Attention Economy”: a study designed to explore the connections between attention and consumer buying behavior. The study examined 3,400 people as they engaged with 17,000 different adverts across various channels. Attention was measured using state-of-the-art eye-tracking to establish how deeply an advert was engaged with, how long for, and what percentage of it was visible and in full or partial gaze of the recipient as they engaged with it.
Crucially, the study went further than just measuring attention and engagement. Dentsu Aegis used the concept of STATS (Short Time Advertising Strength) to correlate attention levels with commercial outcomes by making products available for consideration and purchase through a virtual store for a period after the study.
This revolutionary approach allowed the researchers to properly explore the connections between real engagement metrics and buying behavior to find a causal link and demonstrate the true value of attention.
Linking attention and intent
The findings of “The Attention Economy” study were fascinating.
The key result was confirmation of the fact that the more time and attention we give to an advert, the higher our propensity to buy. Specifically, the study found that adverts viewed for a total of 30 seconds resulted in an almost 40% increase in likelihood to purchase versus an advert that was merely skimmed for a few seconds.
This finding was backed up by a similar result which showed a direct correlation between how intense the focus was on a given advert and a recipient’s propensity to buy, irrespective of time spent viewing the advert. Specifically, an advert that received full attention resulted in a 15% increase in likelihood to buy versus one which was just glanced at.
Taken together, these two results confirm the idea that the more time and focus we dedicate to a particular message, the more likely we are to be persuaded and influenced by it.
= more revenue
With the link between audience attention and buying outcomes empirically proven, what can businesses do to remain relevant and competitive?
While the focus of “The Attention Economy” was predominantly on advertising, the same results hold true for other forms of customer engagement. From articles to videos and from emails to web pages – if we can get our audiences to spend more quality time engaging with our materials, we should expect better commercial outcomes for our businesses.
This all starts by ensuring that we are producing content on the right topics of interest for our audiences – but most businesses generally don’t struggle with this. Most of us are quite well attuned to what our customers want to hear about and where we can provide value to them on their buying journey.
Instead, the real struggle lies in communicating our message in a compelling and engaging way that maximizes reader attention and therefore business value. In other words, the struggle is not so much with the “message” but more with the “medium”.
But is it really possible to drive greater engagement just by rethinking our methods of content delivery?
To begin answering this crucial question, let's take a look at psychology.
*DECODE* Understanding attention 🧠
The psychology of self-determination theory
The psychology of attention
To really understand what causes us to sit up and pay attention, we must plunge headfirst into the world of psychology. There are many branches of psychological thought which can help us to understand the way humans make decisions, how we approach risk and how we manage complexity. But for the purposes of understanding attention, we will turn first to a psychological theory known as “self-determination theory”.
Self-determination theory (or SDT for short) was first proposed by Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan in the mid-1980s and has seen a significant growth in interest over recent years as modern businesses look to understand how they can outcompete one another for a larger share of our attention.
SDT makes two key claims: firstly, that we pay greater attention and are more successful at activities we enjoy than those we are required to complete. And, secondly, that there is a reliable formula for ensuring an activity falls into the first of these two categories.
Understanding human motivation
SDT proposes that any activity we undertake is motivated by either “intrinsic” or “extrinsic” reasons. An intrinsically motivated activity can be thought of as one we do for an inherent feeling of satisfaction, such as for fun or for a challenge. Extrinsically motivated activities, on the other hand, are things we do because of some external pressure or reward.
As an example, playing a musical instrument or taking part in sport will typically be intrinsically motivated activities, but completing your tax return or staying up till 3am cramming for a test are typically extrinsically motivated.
Time and again, research shows that we will persist for longer, perform better and remember more of the activities we undertake for intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations. Or in simple terms, if we find inherent satisfaction in a task, we will put more into it and get more out of it. Surely then, if our goal as businesses is to attain and maintain attention in order to remain competitive in the modern world, we should be trying to provide our customers and prospects with intrinsically motivating experiences for them to take part in.
But how do we do that exactly?
Luckily, SDT is a well-developed field of investigation and there is a wealth of research into what makes a high-quality, intrinsically motivating experience. The following three psychological needs are widely regarded as the key ingredients of a successful, intrinsically motivating experience:
#1 Autonomy – we want to be in control of the outcomes we achieve. An intrinsically motivating experience needs to provide us with the ability to make our own choices, take our own path and be in control of our situation. Studies have shown that simply increasing the range of choices available to us in an activity increases our sense of intrinsic motivation, while creating artificial inhibitors of choice, such as deadlines, markedly decreases this sense.
If we take the example of someone learning the piano, this could be achieved by getting the student to determine which pieces to learn and in which order, rather than mandating them from a book.
#2 Competence – we want to feel that we have achieved some level of mastery over our situation.
It’s not enough to provide someone with a trivial, passive experience and expect them to feel motivated to complete it – there needs to be an element of challenge and the ability for us to overcome it if we are to feel intrinsically motivated to complete an activity.
In our example of learning the piano, this will be achieved through the improvement in muscle memory and dexterity over time, allowing us to play previously unplayable pieces.
#3 Relatedness – we want to be treated as an individual and either receive something specially tailored just for us or else be able to input our views and opinions into the activity in some way. In our piano example, this could be achieved by putting our own spin on the pieces we learn through improvisation.
These three key principles of intrinsically motivating activities provide a powerful framework for designing experiences that will capture and maintain the attention of our audiences. Used properly, they’re the “secret sauce” which allows us an unfair advantage in the battle for audience attention. But what else can psychology tell us about attention and engagement? What other principles exist to help us win this battle?
the best furniture seller
Most people are familiar with IKEA as the world’s largest furniture retailer, but did you know that they are also the world’s tenth-largest food retailer?
IKEA uses many psychological tricks to boost sales, including offering their world-famous meatballs at a strategic point during your shopping trip. They know that everything looks better after a good meal, so by making delicious and affordable meatballs available as part of your trip, they can increase the likelihood of you deciding that, on balance, that new sofa is probably a good idea after all.
IKEA is a master of using psychology like this, and there are many articles online for the curious to explore further.
A picture speaks
a thousand words
“A picture speaks a thousand words,” or so the saying goes. But is it actually true?
Consider that over 50% of your brain is directly or indirectly involved in processing visual information. That’s quite amazing when you consider all the things our brains do for us which aren’t visual – talking, thinking, breathing, listening, walking and all the other thousands of activities we undertake every day, and yet half of all our brainpower is spent on visuals.
In fact, scientists believe that our brain is so hungry for visual processing power that we have irreversibly cannibalized the power of some of our other senses (most notably, our sense of smell) to specialize more on visuals.
It shouldn’t be too surprising to us, then, that visuals play a huge role in capturing and keeping our attention.
In the late 1970s, 3M conducted a study into the effects of using imagery in the context of a presentation. They took the same basic narrative, and then prepared two different slide decks: one which just used text on the screen and one which enhanced this with images. The two decks were then shown to different audiences who were interviewed after the presentation to record their reactions.
To say the results of the AB test were amazing would be an understatement. The group who saw the image-enhanced version said that the presentation was more concise, clear, data-evidenced, professional, interesting, and – crucially – 43% more persuasive as measured by their desire to pay to hear more about the subject under discussion.
Just think about that for a second – the same message, the same narrative, and the same presenter. But, through careful use of imagery, a 43% increase in persuasive power.
But the power of images extends even further than this.
The picture superiority effect
If you’ve ever been struggling to remember a lot of information, you may have come across various memory techniques involving images. These typically involve making up a visual story that relates to the information you’re trying to remember and then retelling this to yourself whenever you need to recall the data. Funnily enough, this is known as the “Memory Palace” technique and is used by top competitive memory champions (yes, that is a real thing).
So, does this actually work? And if so, why?
The first of the questions is easier to answer. Yes, it does appear that imagery is a very powerful route to memory and recall.
For example, a study looked at the effect in the context of reading. Two versions of the same article were prepared – one which was just the text, and one which used contextual images in addition to the words. The two different versions were shown to two different groups to read, and three days later the participants were quizzed on what they could remember.
Again, the results of this AB test were incredible. The group who saw the text-only version could accurately recall around 10% of the detail from the article, but the image-enhanced readers increased this to over 50%.
So – why does this happen? Honestly, we don’t know for certain. There are various competing theories, but the general consensus seems to be that our brain finds it easier to encode images into memory than words alone. Certainly, when we remember just how much of our brainpower is used on image processing, this would make intuitive sense at least.
An unfair advantage
We could explore psychology for days on end, unearthing every possible source of advantage – but what we’ve covered already should be more than enough to start proving definite improvements in attention if we can successfully implement it in our interactions with customers.
So, let’s turn our own attention in that direction.
*TEST* Putting it to the test 📝
An AB test for the Psychology of Engagement
Show me the receipts
How Nielsen and Lumen Research proved the value of psychology in content
While the previous discussions around self-determination theory and intrinsically motivating experiences make good intuitive sense, we weren’t satisfied to take this at face value. If it really is the case that modern businesses need to compete for attention like never before, we wanted to go in search of hard, unarguable proof that a correct application of psychology can help companies win this competition and succeed in their growth objectives.
So, we did the only sensible thing and partnered with media giant Nielsen and the world-leading team at Lumen Research to design a scientific study to prove the effectiveness of all this psychological theory, one way or the other.
The idea for the study was simple – take a single piece of content and reproduce it in two very different forms:
One “control” version which would be in a standard, unenhanced reading format.
One “psychologically-enhanced” version which would deploy all of the learnings of self-determination theory, the picture superiority effect and more.
The piece of content we landed on for the test was “The Challenge of Attention”, Nielsen’s own landmark study on the subject of audience engagement. This was many months in the making and was expected to generate significant interest irrespective of how it was presented, making it an excellent test case for us to really prove or disprove the value of a psychological approach to content design.
Each version of the content would contain exactly the same chapters, words, and messages – only the medium would differ between the two.
Getting the second, psychologically-enhanced version of the content to correctly apply all of the key attention-improving principles discussed previously was of critical importance. We addressed each aspect of self-determination theory as follows:
#1 Autonomy – rather than providing readers with a traditional, linear “start at the top and scroll to the bottom” experience, we designed one which allowed each reader to take their own journey through the content and read the sections of interest in the order that made the most sense to them.
#2 Competence – again, rather than delivering a standard scrolling experience, we gave each reader the chance to take positive actions within the content by clicking and navigating to the pieces that felt most interesting to them.
This was designed to deliver a sense of competence because the reader would need to explore in their own way.
#3 Relatedness – instead of just providing a one-way reading experience, we allowed readers to answer questions and engage with video and other interactive elements as they consumed the content. This was designed to create more of a two-way conversation within the content with the reader putting as much into the piece as they got out of it.
The psychologically-enhanced version also used imagery strategically in order to benefit from the picture superiority effect, specifically:
#1 Chapter headings – each new chapter in the piece was accompanied by a contextually relevant image to help introduce the new subject and cement the concept in the reader’s mind for improved recollection.
#2 Chapter pages – each page layout made extensive use of imagery and different layouts to ensure every part of the experience was visually rich, striking, and distinctive to further increase attention and retention of the information presented.
Numerous other psychological principles and aspects were deployed in addition to the above, but these would require a far deeper level of explanation which we will explore in future articles.
Can’t wait to further develop your own psychological know-how? Subscribe to our Noggin’ Notes newsletter, a monthly roundup of top psychological tips and tricks you can use in your marketing, sales, and other business efforts straight away.
With the two versions of the piece complete and ready to go, attention turned to finding the perfect sample group of guinea pigs to test drive them.
The study group
Usually, marketers are excluded from market research studies. But in this case, all parties agreed that senior marketers would prove to be far tougher critics of our psychologically-improved content form than members of other disciplines. So we asked Panelbase to find just that – 150 senior marketers to take part in our study.
With 150 carefully selected test subjects in place, Lumen Research’s state-of-the-art technology was used to run a forensic “attention analysis” of the two different content forms. Their kit bag includes eye-tracking technology, attention measurement techniques, and open-ended questioning to fully understand how the audience was responding to the two different content forms.
No stone unturned
And because the test wasn’t thorough enough already, we decided it would be interesting to understand how (if at all) the effectiveness of the different forms would be impacted by device type. So, for good measure, we asked the audiences to use both mobile and laptop devices to engage with the content provided to them.
*ANALYZE* The results 📈
1006% longer read times when attention psychology is used
When the results came in, it’s fair to say that Turtl, Nielsen, and Lumen Research were all blown away. While we expected the psychologically-enhanced version of the content to outperform the traditional version, we weren’t expecting anything as striking as a 1006% improvement in time spent engaging with the piece.
While the traditional version was read by audiences for an average of 16 seconds – barely more than a skim – the enhanced version saw average read times explode to over 175 seconds on laptop and 135 seconds on mobile. When asked questions about the content they had just read, readers of the enhanced version said they found the content friendlier, more compelling, and easier to stay engaged with – exactly what we would expect from the psychological research.
This represents a truly remarkable improvement and shows just how powerful psychology can be in improving content engagement and winning the battle for audience attention.
Moreover, the eye-tracking analysis confirmed that readers weren’t just spending longer in the piece, they were engaging more deeply with every aspect of the content. In fact, Lumen Research’s analysis of the data found that readers of the enhanced version spent 8.15 times longer in a mode of “intense engagement” with the content, meaning that their eyes were actively engaged in studying the text, imagery, video, and diagrams contained in the content – proper, deep engagement with the materials.
Taken together, these two results make perfect sense. Using psychology to draw the reader in and place them in a state of “intense engagement” by applying the principles of intrinsic motivation, we ensure that they will want to continue reading the piece because, as self-determination theory states, we persist longer and perform better at such activities.
Plus, 5x more positive brand perception
Outside of the explosive improvements in reader attention, the study demonstrated a number of other significant benefits of the enhanced version.
Through closed-questioning at the end of the study, audiences stated a 5x more positive perception of the Nielsen brand in the enhanced version versus the control. Or put another way, not only did the audience read and engage with the enhanced version for longer, this in turn, resulted in a more positive perception of the brand who produced the content in the first place. Again, this makes good common-sense – if a brand produces an item that provides you with real value and benefit, you are much more likely to see that brand in a positive light.
Additionally, audience feedback showed that they were 367% more likely to view the brand as “friendly” and 67% more likely to consider the content “scientific” when presented in the enhanced form.
No matter how you look at the data, the story is clear – psychological principles can be applied to content to bring about huge improvements in attention, engagement, brand sentiment, and more. While we were confident we would see some significant results, what we saw exceeded our wildest expectations and provided real food-for-thought for anyone who is serious about improving the way they engage with their audience.
And, as discussed previously, this should be anyone who is serious about growing their business and market share because if we don’t take advantage of this knowledge, our competitors certainly will.
So what should businesses do next with these results, and how can they be applied to improve the communications we all provide to our audiences every day?
*APPLY* Key takeaways 🔐
How to use attention to drive your content strategy
If we’ve maintained your attention this long, then congratulations – you are living proof that all this psychology does in fact work!
Hopefully you’ve gained some new perspectives and insights you can take with you to improve whatever communications you are producing and using in your own business.
Because everyone loves a nice concise list:
#1 More attention means a healthier business – as Dentsu Aegis showed us, attention means real, sustained attention from our audiences and we should measure this in terms of active engagement time. And when we do this, we see a very simple equation emerge: more attention = higher propensity to buy.
#2 Psychology is the key to understanding the science of attention – we looked at self-determination theory and the power of imagery, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Psychology has a huge amount to teach us about the human brain, what makes us sit up and pay attention, and what sends us to sleep.
By reading and understanding this research, we can gain a very unfair advantage over the competition.
#3 We can get amazing results by applying these learnings – as shown in our study with Nielsen and Lumen Research, 10x improvements in attention are very achievable if we apply the science correctly. And remember, more attention = higher propensity to buy.
So, armed with these key takeaways, what should we do next?
Assess your current production practices – do you produce content with the intent to engage? Or is the form of your content an afterthought? Moving away from static, traditional methods can pay big engagement dividends.
Assess your current measurement practices – do you really measure attention, or do you use a low-resolution proxy like opens, clicks, or downloads? If so, you should consider how you can move to meaningful attention measures which correlate with the business outcomes you need.
Keep learning – by reading this piece, you’re already 10x better informed than most practitioners, but there’s always more to learn. If you’re interested in the broad subject of attention, persuasion, and influence, you might enjoy the reading recommendations below:
*COMING UP* What's next?
What's next? You tell us!
If you enjoyed this issue, please help us decide which topic to cover next time –
just read the three outlines on the next two pages and vote for your favorite.
The serious business of storytelling
“Great stories happen to those who can tell them.” – Ira Glass
Storytelling connects us like nothing else. Whether we’re enjoying a movie, listening to a novel, or reading a book, stories and storytelling have an unmatched ability to draw us in, capture our attention, and communicate ideas and messages across space and time. But why is storytelling such an effective form of communication? What makes stories tick? And how can we leverage their power to improve our communications and relationships with prospects, customers, colleagues, and other audiences?
In this issue, we’ll explore the history of storytelling, look at what makes a story a story, and show how this knowledge can be applied in sales, marketing, internal comms, and other business functions to deliver tangible results.
Interested in reading about storytelling next time?
The race to get personal
“There is no sweeter sound to one's ear than the sound of one’s own name.”
Businesses are now latching on to what Dale Carnegie observed a hundred years ago – we love to be treated as the individuals we truly are.
In recent years, tech giants like Amazon, Netflix, and Google have all used personalized services to drive rapid growth and customer satisfaction. Now the race is on for businesses across all sectors to leverage these same principles to steal a march on the competition by driving personalized relationships, satisfaction, and loyalty at scale through technology.
In this issue, we’ll explore the psychology behind personalization, why interest in the field has exploded in recent years as buyer behavior changes, and how technology is helping businesses around the world get progressively closer to their customers through personalized experiences.
Does personalization float your boat?
The modern buyer experience
“Nothing is constant but change”
Heraclitus would be proud to know that his pronouncement is just as true today as it was when he made it nearly three thousand years ago.
And buyer expectations and behaviors are no exception to his rule. The last 20 years have seen greater shifts in buying habits than the past hundred thanks to the advent and maturation of the internet, the shift to subscription revenue models, and heightened expectations around the quality of service we receive at every touchpoint.
In this issue, we’ll explore the trends behind the changes, discuss how they affect buyer behavior, and look at what businesses need to do to satisfy their audiences over the coming decade.
Interested in learning about the modern buyer experience?
"Demystifying the psychology of attention" was brought to you by Turtl – the world’s only business communications and insight platform with proven psychological foundations.
We’re passionate about using best-practice psychology and data to improve the performance of all types of communications. Learn more at turtl.co