The Future: planning for the attention deficit
By now we are all well aware that the media landscape is going through a process of digital acceleration. There has been a rapid and quite astonishing growth in the number of new digital devices, platforms and media technologies – not just the ‘conventional’ growth of internet-enabled devices, but also the digitisation of ‘traditional’ broadcast media.
The net effect is a commensurate growth in the amount of media technology that audiences own and use, and a frankly daunting number of choices facing agencies and marketers.
Whilst it is true we are in a brave new world of opportunity, it is not the techno-utopian wonderland that purveyors of new platforms will have us believe. By now we know that ‘new’ media won’t simply supplant ‘old’ media. History has taught us, and continues to teach us, that in the main we find ways to integrate new media technologies into our habitual routines alongside existing media technologies.
Mobile devices won’t replace desktop devices; the internet hasn’t replaced TV; TV hasn’t replaced radio; radio didn’t replace the press – and so on. Tablets are set to be the fasting growing consumer electronic product in history, and they are essentially superfluous devices, a new way of consuming content from existing platforms.
The outcome is more media: we own more devices and spend more time using them, sometimes filling gaps that were previously ‘empty’, often using multiple devices simultaneously. Our media use changes, but not in a simple, either-or way.
There are signs that the growth in mediated living, the experience of life through screens and devices, is starting affect the way we prioritise and process information in fundamental ways. Though the research is nascent, the available evidence shows that the proliferation of devices, the amount of content we consume on them, and the immediacy of information at our fingertips, fragments our attention and affects our ability to recall what we see and experience. The implication for us is profound. As Nicholas Carr says, ‘the result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration’.
So, it seems we will continue to consume more and may absorb less. And frankly, from an audience perspective, the least memorable or important content we consume is commercial messaging. This poses two distinct challenges for agencies and marketers.
Firstly, brands will need to think hard about how to continue to build effective equity in the multi-platform noise. Secondly, agencies and marketers will increasingly face the burden of attention-deficit in our working lives – new devices, new technologies, new platforms, new media companies, new advertising models, new choices. We could spend endless time assessing these. The real task is to prioritise which options are strategically valuable.
Tackling the audience challenge will require the development of simple, consistent brand narratives, compellingly delivered across the most relevant media and technology platforms. Schizophrenic brands that overcomplicate what they communicate will be punished even more.
New platforms will require a blend of marketing strands: clear and compelling communication, services and utilities that make life easier and simpler for end users, and the right brand content available in the right platforms at the point of audience need. It will also require fleet of foot, intervening in tactical and topical events that hold our collective attention, at least for a little while.
We will need to abandon tactics and campaigns that are over-reliant on audience participation and engagement. This doesn’t mean audiences won’t engage with brands, but they will give us their time sparingly and for specific reasons. We need to do the hard work for them by creating great content, working with the grain of their behaviours and building useful, well-designed digital services. The days of self-serving ‘upload-your-version’ participative campaigns should be numbered.
At the risk of cliché, the challenge for agencies and marketers will increasingly require us to ‘sacrifice and over-commit’. To do fewer things better. To be clear, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t test-and-learn in new platforms and when new opportunities arise. But the filter should always be of strategic prioritisation: test in the areas where consumer behaviour may change in ways that impact your business.
The task for agencies is to be sufficiently tuned into the strategic needs of their clients’ business to overcome choice paralysis. In the main, our task will be to make choices about the best available platforms, execute better in them, and get the right data out of them to inform how they evolve.
The good news is that whilst the world around us is changing, the underlying fundamentals of good marketing practice shouldn’t change: understanding customer behaviour, building compelling brand narratives and the power of good ideas well delivered. Arguably, our collective attention deficit makes this even more critical.
Mark Holden, head of futures, Arena Media