Getting Attention: The Science of Being Captivating Online : Social Media Examiner

Do you want to bring more attention to your business or product?

Want to find out what inspires people to take notice?

To discover how to get people’s attention online, I interview Ben Parr.

More About This Show

The Social Media Marketing podcast is an on-demand talk radio show from Social Media Examiner. It’s designed to help busy marketers and business owners discover what works with social media marketing.

In this episode I interview Ben Parr, the former co-editor for Mashable. He’s also the co-founder of DominateFund—invest in great companies. His new book is called Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention.

Ben will explore the science of getting attention.

You’ll discover the different types of attention, as well as some of the triggers.

podcast 160 ben parr on captivation

Listen as Ben Parr shares what marketers need to know about the science of being captivating online.

Share your feedback, read the show notes and get the links mentioned in this episode below.

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Here are some of the things you’ll discover in this show:

Getting Attention

Ben’s backstory

Ben talks about how his personal blog led to writing for Mashable in 2008. Some of the stories on Ben’s blog hit Digg, which was big at the time. Mashable noticed and asked Ben to write for them. He then came on board as a junior editor, and was promoted to co-editor in 2009, which was when he moved to San Francisco. Ben was with Mashable for 3 1/2 years. placeit image

Ben’s blog led to his writing for Mashable. Image: Placeit.

As co-editor, Ben was in charge of the West Coast. Since he was the only one in Silicon Valley for a long time, if anything came up in Silicon Valley (like they needed someone to talk to Mark Zuckerberg), they called on Ben. He wrote about 2,400 articles and also helped manage and mentor a lot of reporters and junior editors.

Ben’s book, Captivology, came about a couple of years ago. When Ben was just starting out investing in companies, he realized they were all asking for help with press and marketing, customer and user acquisition, and virality. He explains that all of these areas are about getting attention for products and getting users.

Ben says he did a lot of research, and realized there was a lot of interesting information about attention over the last 50 years, but no one had put it together into something mainstream.

Listen to the show to discover why Captivology was the book he had to write.

The science behind the book


Captivology by Ben Parr.

For Captivology, Ben went through more than 1,000 different research studies and interviewed dozens of PhDs, as well as business leaders and thought leaders, like Sheryl Sandberg, Steven Soderbergh and David Copperfield. They helped him frame the book in a way that there’s a lot of science and research, but also practical information. There’s knowledge people can use in daily life.

Going into the book, Ben had theories about things like reward systems, and confirmed some of his beliefs on how they work.

For example, there’s a type of reward-giving, called post-action rewards. This is when someone gets a reward as a surprise after completing an action. When you surprise people with a reward, it reinforces behavior.

Listen to the show to discover why incentives are the worst ways to get attention.

The three types of attention

In Ben’s research, he discovered three stages of attention: immediate, short and long attention.

Immediate attention. This is the immediate and automatic reaction people have to certain sights, sounds and stimuli. When people hear a gunshot they duck, which is an automatic reaction to protect themselves. There’s a lot of fascinating science on how that works and why it matters, Ben says.

Short attention. Short attention is the second stage. That’s when people start consciously focusing on something. When someone starts watching a show or reading a story about something, that’s short attention.

Long attention. A lot of people don’t think about the third stage, which is long attention (long-term interest in a subject). It’s the difference between listening to a song on the radio and becoming a lifelong fan of a musician or band.

It’s these three stages of attention that everybody (brands, individuals, marketers, musicians, etc.) walks through, Ben explains. It’s not enough to make people see your ad. You have to turn them into users and customers.

attention image shutter stock 224528383

There are three stages of attention. Image: Shutterstock.

The stages of attention are chronological, and different psychological triggers capture those stages.

“You need all of the stages, but you don’t necessarily need all of the triggers,” Ben shares.

Certain sights and sounds make us pay attention automatically. Ben refers to this type of trigger as automacity. For example, Amazon uses yellow and orange for Buy buttons for a reason. They have the highest contrast with their surroundings on white and gray web pages and they perform best.

Science shows that high-contrast colors make us pay attention. At the same time, though, orange has the lowest correlation with confidence. So it’s not good to come to a job interview in an orange suit, because you won’t be taken seriously.

Ben summarizes the forms of attention. Immediate attention is measured in seconds. It is unconscious. Short attention is like watching a movie, listening to a podcast or playing a game in just one session. Long attention is what happens after long periods of time. It’s not just playing a game for a little while. It’s going back and buying the next game and the game after that.

Listen to the show to hear more examples of automacity.

How marketers use triggers

Ben says disruption is a powerful tool for capturing short attention, since we pay attention to things that are out of place.

When we were hunter/gatherers, we would look for things that were out of place, Ben explains. There would be red in the fields that could be berries. Plus, movement in the fields could be prey or a predator. We still have those instincts, but now we look for things of shock entertainment value or quick stunts.

It’s important for disruption to match your brand values.

For example, years ago, Patagonia did a great campaign called “Don’t buy this jacket.” They are a clothing company, so it doesn’t make sense. It’s disruptive. When you go deeper into the ad, you see why they said it. They don’t want you to buy their stuff unnecessarily. They want to protect the environment. Patagonia will repair your clothes if you want them to, but they’ll let you buy a jacket if you want it, as well. That campaign doubled their sales within nine months.


Patagonia did a very successful disruptive ad campaign.

On the other hand, years ago, Quizno’s did a campaign where weird mutant-looking rodents were selling sandwiches and singing off-key. It made no sense. Why would you want ugly rodents near your food? Quizno’s disruption campaign missed the mark.

One of the long-intention triggers is reputation. We automatically pay attention to experts, authority figures and the crowd. The science shows that we pay deferential respect to experts.

Edelman does a trust survey every year. They also find every year that the most trustworthy spokesperson is always an expert. A CEO is near the bottom, so Ben doesn’t understand it when companies bring out their CEOs for ads.

Social media, Ben says, helps to brand someone an expert. It’s creating content. The more an authority writes medium posts, white papers, articles, blog posts or books on their area of expertise, the more they will be branded as an expert. And the more they do it, the greater that association. It’s as simple as that. Create entertaining and informative content consistently and become known for that expertise.

Another way to be an expert is to have others say that you are an expert.

Listen to the show to discover why experts fall off the radar.

How businesses use the mystery trigger

The most obvious way to use the mystery trigger is storytelling, Ben says. It can be suspense within an advertisement. There’s a study that shows if there’s suspense within an ad, people tend to rate it as a better, more thoughtful ad. One they’ll remember longer.

Ben uses the Budweiser Super Bowl ad with the lost puppy as an example of this. In the ad, a puppy that was lost finally made it home with the help of the horses. You knew that the puppy was going to get home. How the puppy was going to get home is what made the story compelling. Suspense is a positive emotion for attention.

Campaigns as a series also work for this. You build a relationship with this person or an idea. Plus, it’s a matter of creating something people want to learn more about, so they want to come back and learn more.

A couple of years ago, Ben, Guy Kawasaki and a few others did a campaign for The Onion. They were asked to talk about a bucket as if it were the next great Apple product. It was revolutionary. The storage was unlimited. We said crazy things, Ben recalls. It was actually a campaign for Home Depot and a bucket. It had the mystery because you couldn’t see what it was, but it was hilarious and serious. And it was totally effective.

Ben wants people to understand that attention is a good thing. It is a force for good in the right hands.

“No longer can you build something and expect people to come if it’s a good product,” Ben says. “You have to do more in this noisy world. If you have something worthwhile, whether it’s a lesson or a book or an idea or a startup. You’ve got to be willing to push it and bring it out to the forefront.”

It’s not attention for yourself; it’s attention for your products, passions and ideas.

Listen to the show to hear our thoughts on JJ Abrams, as well as the Serial and Startup podcasts, and how they build mystery.

Discovery of the Week

Do you ever wish there was a cool system to analyze hashtags? Guess what? I found one. It’s called Seen. It takes a look at Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and a few others, and analyzes the hashtag.


Seen gives you insights for hashtags.

Type in a hashtag on Seen, and it shows you insights. It shows the number of activities along that hashtag over a period of time. It even shows you the number of posts per hour.

I tested this out with the hashtag for the Social Media Success Summit. As of this recording, there are 11.6 posts per hour. It shows you related hashtags that people use. For example, #socialmedia was one of the related hashtags.

What’s really cool is you can click on All, Photos, Videos or Tweets, so you can zoom in and see what’s going on with different hashtags.

I did the same thing for Social Media Marketing World’s hashtag, #SMMW, and I am still seeing 13.5 hashtags a day for our event, which is kind of shocking, considering it ended about six months ago.

This is a cool way to discover who is using your hashtags across different sites. From what I can tell, it’s free. Give it a try.

Listen to the show to learn more and let us know how Seen works for you.

Other Show Mentions

social media success summitToday’s show is sponsored by Social Media Success Summit 2015.

Want to improve your social media marketing? Need to prove your efforts are working? Join 4,000 fellow marketers at the online mega-conference, designed to inspire and empower you.

Discover the best and newest ways to market your business on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Instagram and Pinterest. Find new ways to improve your content and measure your results all from the comfort of your home or office.

You’ll be led by dozens of top social media pros, including Mari Smith, Mark Schaefer, Amy Porterfield, Christopher Penn, Neal Schaffer, Ian Cleary, Viveka Von Rosen, Jon Loomer, Andrea Vahl, Steve Dotto, Amy Schmittauer, Peg Fitzpatrick, Brian Fanzo, Sue Zimmerman, Kim Garst, Andy Crestodina, Pam Moore, Martin Shervington, Ron Nash, Donna Moritz, Michael Stelzner and more. We have selectively recruited the top experts in every major social network to share tactical, step-by-step, hands-on information.

Donna Moritz from Socially Sorted is one of this year’s speakers. She’ll be sharing 10 visual imaging tools that create killer social media images. She’ll dive into everything from sharable images to infographics and short video with tools you can use now to get results in your business.

In addition to Donna, we have a lot of other presenters talking about visual marketing. Peg Fitzpatrick will talk about how to create a visual style guide for your social media images. Rebekah Radice will talk about how to visually promote your content to increase your shares and traffic. We also have three sessions on Instagram marketing and another three sessions on Pinterest marketing. And this is just scratching the surface of what you will discover when you join the Social Media Success Summit.

Social Media Success Summit is an online conference. It’s 36 different sessions spread across 4 weeks. There are three sessions per day, three times per week, over four weeks. And it’s on every social media platform you can imagine. Check it out. Visit for significant early bird discounts.

Listen to the show!

Key takeaways mentioned in this episode:

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What do you think? What are your thoughts on getting attention? Please leave your comments below. image created with Placeit.
Attention photo from Shutterstock.
social media marketing podcast 160 ben parr

Ben Parr talks with Michael Stelzner about the science of being captivating online.

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