Prioritizing in the attention economy

Why are you reading this article? How did it win even a few seconds of your attention? Will it give you some useful ideas for improving your company’s Website? Could it help make your business more profitable? Perhaps even advance your career? Maybe it will entertain you…but that’s not enough. How much time do I have left before I lose the right to your attention?

Are you already tempted to:

  • Start another article?

  • Check your e-mail?

  • Check your voice-mail?

  • Fiddle with your Netflix queue? Read your favorite blog? Download a new track from iTunes? Check your e-mail (again)? Watch that weird robot dance on YouTube?

Here’s rule number one of the attention economy: if I want to communicate with you (or market to you) I need to capture your attention and earn the right to keep it. You are also a marketer. Do you want your visitors to take action on your Website? Buy something? Sign up for your e-mail? Request a catalog? Your user also has a Netflix queue. You, too, are competing for some very scarce attention.

So why keep reading? If you do, you’ll learn how putting first things first and leveraging prominence and prioritization can help your site win a few points in the competition for online attention.

To increase the odds of my message gaining your attention, I’ll restate it in an easily-scanned bulleted list.

Here’s exactly what you get if you continue reading:

  • Some of the history and ideas behind the attention economy and putting first things first when you market online.

  • A list of formatting tips to make your Web copy more readable and more likely to pull people further into your site.

  • A pair of “first things first” tactics to make your Web pages more visible to search engine spiders.

  • A modest “a-ha” about your e-mail that could stop you from emphasizing a dated metric and prevent your most important offer from remaining invisible to someone looking right at it.

First things first

Remember that “motivational” speech Alec Baldwin delivers in the film Glengarry Glenn Ross? Between the four-letter words and death threats to a slumped sales team, he tosses out an acronym — AIDA — that suggests he’s a student of early 20th century advertising.

In the 1925 edition of the Journal of Applied Psychology, E.K. Strong described the process of attention, interest, desire, action — AIDA — as key to successfully courting consumers, or as we might put it, turning browsers into buyers.

Attention is the first prerequisite to conversion. Capture your prospect’s attention with an offer strong enough to gain his interest, and he may then desire your product enough to take action.

The challenge is that there’s a whole lot of competition for that crucial moment of attention. More than two decades before the launch of the Web as we know it, the computer scientist Hebert Simon pointed out that the rapid growth of information causes scarcity of attention. This scarcity increases the value of this attention.

In the early days of the Web, mainstream marketers were forced to compete for attention with the new upstart channel. Today, the Web itself is mainstream, but the proliferation of blogs, RSS feeds, pod casts, and other hallmarks of Web 2.0 -increases the competition for attention exponentially. Just one example: in three years the number of blogs increased 100-fold, doubling every six months!

In today’s attention economy your user:

  • Understands she will be marketed to constantly.
  • Knows this competition makes her attention valuable.
  • Expects to gain value in exchange for it.

What does that mean for you, the online merchant and marketer? How can your site cut through the clutter and not just add to it?

Well for one thing, your message can’t be boring. It needs to be relevant. Does that mean your site should master personalization, offer a fine-tuned recommendation engine, stand out from the crowd with a remarkable video that gets forwarded around the ‘Net? Maybe. But unless your new features are built on a solid foundation, they’re unlikely to satisfy. For many online retailers, mastering the fundamentals is where the most valuable ground can be gained.

When we work with our clients to improve their site strategy and design, we emphasize prioritization and front-loading. These are active processes that hone your message and help you design your site to lead with what’s most important.

Once you start to look for it, you’ll see front-loading everywhere. It’s an underlying structure that can be found in most successful messaging and content online.

First things first is a mantra that benefits your site at the strategic level and at the tactical, too. What exactly should you be doing? Let’s look at five strategies.

Evaluate your USP

Start at 10,000 feet. How well does your site articulate your unique selling proposition, the reasons to buy from you and not your competitors? Have you done the necessary soul-searching to come up with something you’re passionate about? If your message isn’t important to you, it will ring hollow when you try to convince someone else.

Now, can you state your USP’s case in 250 words? How about three sentences? A seven-word tagline? If you can’t nail this down, your site’s messaging and design will likely reflect this lack of focus.

As a quick exercise, have your team list and rank the specific benefits you offer your prospective customer. Next, survey both buyers and nonbuyers, asking them to rank your internal list based on the importance of each equity to their own purchase decisions. Ask them if they were aware of each item on your list and for any omissions. Periodically survey your customers to understand what they really want to do on your site and how well they’re currently able to do it.

With these prioritized inventories in hand, you’re in better shape to lead with what’s important to your user — and capture their attention.

Prioritize your page real estate

Drop down to page design. The next time you’re about to create a new page, before you move a single pixel, think first things first. List each element competing for placement on the page. Each should correspond to an action your user can take, like buying, signing up, or even drilling down. As design, make sure the item at the top of your list commands the best real estate and the page’s central visual focus.

Look at the “add to cart” button on your product detail page. How well does it draw attention and place each of the page’s subordinate offers in context?

When you’re designing for attention and action, your central offer needs to be the most visually prominent. To avoid noise, your style guide will need to go further than “bigger” and “more red.” You need a hierarchy.

As always, clutter is the enemy, and a prime culprit on cluttered pages is copy that’s not optimized for the Web. Online, people read less and scan more. Here again, to earn attention put first things first.

Create copy optimized for reading online

Your Website is not your print catalog. Remember these points when you’re crafting online copy.

  • Write in journalism’s inverted pyramid style: most important ideas first.

  • Omit needless words.

  • Write short sentences and short paragraphs.

  • Use frequent subheads, bulleted lists, and bolding.

  • Layer your content. Make what’s most important to most people readable by default, link to the details.

Use front-loaded title tags and HTML headlines

Putting first things first is key to getting attention from search spiders, too. Your best strategy for natural search is to design your site for users first, search engines second. The engines are looking for the same thing as people: relevant content, formatted properly. Still, there are some page elements that can benefit from search-specific attention.

Page titles, the 50-70 characters of text that appear in the chrome at the top of your browser window, are powerful tools for telling the natural search spiders what your page is about.

Make them more effective with front-loading. Forget wasting characters on “welcome.” Unless it describes what you sell, save the name of your company for last. On each page, populate your title tags with the keywords most relevant to that page. Place these words in descending order of importance. Like your readers, the search spiders won’t give your content or your code an unlimited amount of attention.

Next, let’s look at headlines. A strong headline catches your reader’s eye, and under the hood, proper formatting makes your headline appealing to search engines too.

In your site’s source code, make sure each page’s main headline is always encased within H1 tags. These tags help the engines recognize a headline for what it is: a description of the most important content on the page. At one time designers avoided H1 tags because of their ugly default appearance. But you can use CSS (cascading style sheets) to style these tags to your liking.

Optimize for the preview pane

Consider your customer’s inbox. Is there anywhere attention is at a greater premium? To gauge success in this noisy space, among the metrics you track is your e-mail open rate. But thanks to the preview pane, this is becoming less important. Your user can consider your offer without ever opening your message.

What does the last e-mail your company sent look like within the preview pane? Remember that in the latest versions of Outlook, the most popular e-mail client, images are not loaded by default. That means if the only content visible within the first two inches of your message is a picture or graphical headline, the offer your team labored over will read like this:

“Right-click here to download pictures. To help protect your privacy, Outlook prevented automatic download of this picture from the Internet.”

Here again, the prioritizing front-loader prevails: make sure each of your e-mails leads with a plain-text statement of your message’s most compelling offer. It’s a small point, but it could increase your share of the attention that’s becoming harder to win.

Larry Becker is vice president at the Rimm-Kaufman Group, an online marketing agency.