Is marketing’s reliance on social media compromising our ability to capture attention in the future?

Are we sustainably tapping into people’s attention by aligning with social media platforms or could we be putting our future marketing efforts at risk? Rebecca den Braber asks the question.

For as long as advertising has existed, marketers have been trying new and innovative ways to capture people’s attention. And they’re not alone. Media platforms have been doing the same thing tweaking ad formats, length and algorithms to work out exactly how to grab and hold people’s attention. With the proliferation of data, this has become an even more exact science.

Given that, it makes sense for advertisers to align with platforms with the best ability to capture people’s attention. But what if those finely tuned concentration-stealing platforms are actually messing with people’s attention to the point where one day, brands won’t be able to get through to anyone, no matter how hard they try?

That’s the argument of British author Johann Hari whose latest book Stolen Focus explains why so many of us are struggling to pay attention these days.

Spurred on by his teenage nephew’s inability to switch off his phone or tablet, and his own challenges with staying focused, Hari set out to discover what was to blame.

Speaking on the Imperfects Podcast, Hari recounts a conversation with MIT Professor Earl K. Miller, one of the world’s top neuroscientists. Professor Miller explained that the human brain can only consciously think about one or two things at a time yet with the mass adoption of social media, somehow, many of us believe we can follow multiple forms of media at any moment.

Have you ever found yourself watching TV, scrolling through Instagram and chatting to your partner? I know I have. In industry terms, we’ve called this multi-screening and deployed it as a marketing tactic to ironically capture more of our consumer attention by intercepting this very behaviour.

Research, however, has consistently shown that when we think we are multitasking, instead we’re juggling quickly between the tasks. And when we do that, we’re not doing any of those tasks competently. We’re making more mistakes and remembering less of what we do.

The fear of missing out sees us regularly engaging in this behaviour and the result is that nothing much is going into our brains and staying there.

For advertisers looking to build meaningful connections with consumers and encode long term memories, this is seriously bad news.

In this climate, we can try more creative, different creative, increase the frequency of the ads etcetera. But by doing that, we might just be helping to feed a system that will ultimately make our efforts null and void.

So what’s the solution?

An individual digital detox could help to break the habit and free up your attention to take in advertising messages. But what’s the likelihood your entire target audience is going to do that before you launch your next campaign?

Besides, Hari says individual action isn’t enough. Instead, the whole structure around us has to change.

For advertisers, that’s a tough one. The fear of missing out is an inherent human trait whether you’re wearing your consumer hat or a marketing one. If every other brand is competing for the remnants of consumer attention, why would you be the odd one out that isn’t?

From an agency point of view, I don’t know that we can say to our clients, “No more advertising on these channels and here are the reasons”. But we should start talking about weaning ourselves off this style of marketing because the long-term damage it is doing to people’s attention is going to hurt us all in the long run.

There is absolutely a role for social media but in the context of an attention economy, the current levels of investment are disproportionate to the longer-term return on attention which most marketers would agree is necessary for building sustainable brands.

Much like boycotts of other media platforms in recent years, there needs to be a movement supported by influential brands to really affect change. Only then can we come together to change the way we use media to future proof our efforts.

And there are plenty of alternatives to consider. For starters, we could lean into the innovation happening in our own backyard across local media. The pandemic has brought a focus to buying local and supporting local communities. There’s no reason why we can’t apply that to media as well. The flow-on effect would be the creation of more and better-quality content that will, in turn, provide us with more advertising opportunities. And that will help us to connect with people in better deeper ways.

We need to find a more sustainable approach to media otherwise in 10 years’ time, we could be looking back on this moment wishing we hadn’t torched the attention capacity of the people we’re trying to build genuine connections with.

Rebecca den Braber is the head of digital, data & technology at Hatched. She will be appearing on a panel at this year’s Mumbrella360 event in July.

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