Captivology: The Science of Capturing People's Attention | Beth's Blog

Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention

Digital Strategy

This month’s theme for the nonprofit Blog Carnival is “Breaking Through the Noise,” calling for tips and ideas about how nonprofits can reach their audiences with the right message at the right time given the clutter of online information clamoring for their attention.     Last month, I was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy of Ben Parr’s new book, Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention that is packed with research, insights, and tips about how to capture your audience’s attention.   The book shares how and why our mind pays attention to some events, ideas, or people and not others.

Parr uses the metaphor of building a fire to describe how capturing attention works.   There are three stages starting with ignition, what captures immediate attention.   The second stage is kindling, where you attract and capture short-term attention on a specific activity, event, or idea.   The final stages is the bonfire or what Parr calls long attention or your audience’s long-term interest in an idea, product, message, cause, or whatever.

In his book, Parr interviews experts in the field of psychology and cognition to examine what it takes to build this “bonfire of attention,” and presents a framework about the 7 “captivation triggers” of attention.   These triggers spark your brain’s attention response by appealing to basic aspects of what makes us human.   The triggers are:

  • Automaticity: Uses specific sensory cues like colors, symbols, or sounds to get attention
  • Framing: Adapt or changes someone’s view of the world so they pay attention to you
  • Disruption: Violates people’s expectations to change what they pay attention to
  • Reward: Appeals to people’s motivations for an intrinsic or external reward
  • Reputation: Uses experts or the crowd to instill trust and capture attention
  • Mystery: Creates uncertainty or suspense to keep the audience intrigued until the end
  • Acknowledgement: Fosters relationships and deeper connections to encourage people to pay attention

The book goes into detail about each of these triggers, describing how they work and examples of how organizations and people capture attention. It is filled with the science and practical techniques to create a bonfire of attention — for anything – from a product to social change cause.

Let’s look at one of these triggers that nonprofits and social good causes might leverage.  The acknowledgement trigger is about our deep seated need to be recognized, validated, and understood by others.  Parrs defines this trigger as an umbrella term that describes our human need for recognition, validation, and empathy.    Our desire for these three needs increases in intensity as we develop a connection with a person, cause, idea, or organization.   The premise is simple – we pay attention to the people, causes, and ideas that pay attention to us.  It is based on reciprocity.

The chapter gives examples of recognition, validation, and empathy create an attention trigger.  For empathy, Parr uses the example of the BatKid story from Make-A-Wish Foundation in San Francisco.   If you recall, Make-A-Wish Foundation in San Francisco made a wish come true for Miles Scott, a young boy with Leukemia.  He wanted to be Batkid. With the power of social media and the empathy of thousands of people, they made his dream come true.  Over 12,000 had showed up to cheer on the young boy and along with came lots of activity on social media as well as major media outlets.

Parr says the secret to capturing attention is that Batkid met our need for empathy, defined as our capability to understand the needs and concerns of others and demonstrate compassion for them.   Empathy creates a connection that makes us pay more attention to something.    We can’t help but to feel for Miles Scott and his family.   What if our child had cancer?    As Parr points out,  empathy is powerful because our innate ability and need to understand and connect with others – even we don’t know them personally.

Parr shares two examples of a fundraising pitch.   One pitch describes dry statistics about food shortages in Africa and the other describes the plight of one child suffering from starvation.  Which one would people likely donate to?

These examples came from an experiment conducted by Dr. Deborah Small of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, an expert in human decision-making.   She asked 121 students to fill out a short survey in exchange for five dollars.  The envelope they received included five one dollar bills, a receipt, and charity request letter.    The request was to donate to Save the Children.  Half the letters were a fundraising request based on statistics and the other half the story of one child facing hunger.     The story of one child received twice as many donations as the fundraising request with statistics.

The point is not to ditch the statistics, but to give your potential donors enough information so they can have empathy with your cause or the story you are telling.   Make it easy for your audience to visualize themselves in that situation.  The more you show, the more your audience will understand.

Parr spent over two years researching and interviewing people for this book.  It is well written book with lots of insights and stories.    As many people that nonprofits want to reach are distracted like the Dog named DUG who screams “Squirrel” in the movie UP,  understanding and applying the science behind capturing attention will be valuable for your nonprofit’s marketing strategy.

3 Responses

  1. […] Beth’s Blog recently featured a post on Ben Parr’s book, Captivology. The book delves into the realm of our mind and why it pays attention to certain events, ideas, and people, and others not. […]

  2. Ooh, I can’t wait to dig in! Thanks for capturing the (so many) high points, Beth.

  3. Beth says:

    Nancy, you will enjoy it!

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