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Overcoming perceptual vigilance and harnessing disruption to capture attention

Attention spans are short, and they're getting shorter. Consumers today are bombarded with editorial, commercial and social messages through more devices and sources than ever. As the CEO of a video platform, I am acutely aware of the challenges brands face when trying to engage consumers, and are especially conscious of the damage that irrelevant messages can do - to both brands and publishers.
© Antonio Diaz via 123RF.com.

I firmly believe that context is the key to capturing and keeping a consumer’s attention. By delivering content based on a consumer’s current behaviour, I see a far greater level of engagement. A recent study conducted with entertainment site The Wrap saw dwell time increase by 33% on pages with contextual video content, while consumer perception of the platform also increased. Equally, a contextually placed commercial is far less likely to irritate a consumer, and spark negative feelings towards the publisher or brand whose product is featured.

The importance of contextual storytelling


I recently worked with a number of top academics from the fields of linguistics, neuroscience and marketing to identify the theories and practices required to capture a consumer’s attention. The unifying theme from each of the experts was the importance of contextual storytelling. If consumers are to give up precious moments in their busy schedule to listen to what advertisers have to say, we have to offer them something worthwhile in return.

Thousands of dollars are wasted as good video ads are delivered in the wrong context every day. An ad for a Burberry trench coat is out-of-place on a sports website, but on a fashion site it makes sense. And this use of context translates into engagement and subsequently, sales.

Publishers must learn to be creative when trying to capture consumers’ attention. We know that grabbing their attention doesn’t work – push notifications are often cited as a leading reason for users uninstalling apps and ad-blockers are more popular than ever, with 30% of internet users set to use one in 2018*.

Multi-screening and perceptual vigilance


In a film my platform created, Consumer Behaviour], Isabelle Szmigin, professor of marketing at Birmingham University, breaks down two key pieces of consumer behaviour that present a serious challenge to publishers and brands – multi-screening and perceptual vigilance.


Multi-screening is a relatively new problem facing advertisers – it’s now completely normal for consumers to switch from one screen to another – whether to avoid advertising content or simply because they are distracted by what’s happening on another device:

Szmigin explains:
“One of the problems advertisers face when consumers are using multiple platforms is that consumers are taking in less information from more sources. Publishers have to think about getting a story or piece of information across quickly and succinctly. We have to accept that consumers will be moving from their phone to their tablet, to a TV.”
Perceptual vigilance, meanwhile, has always been around – but an increase in branded content across multiple platforms means consumers use this more and more often nowadays.

A subconscious mental state


Essentially, perceptual vigilance is a subconscious mental state where our brain is ‘on guard’ to deal with non-essential content – often advertising. When adverts were delivered in predictable formats like four-minute breaks in television shows, we could easily predict when to switch this ‘vigilance’ on, but in the age of branded content and sponsored social posts, we’re constantly having to decide for ourselves if content should be taken at face value or treated as an advert.

This presents a major problem when it comes to capturing a consumer’s attention: if they are used to exercising this perceptual vigilance, they’re automatically on the defensive when it comes to giving away their attention or affection, and are less likely to engage with advertising content.

Perceptual vigilance can also be used to tackle a method used by many modern brands and publishers: disruption. Szmigin explains how disruption can be both a positive and a negative for consumers:
“Doing something that’s different or unexpected often triggers vigilance - consumers basically filter these messages out. Very often consumers get annoyed if their lives are disrupted. If they’re visiting a site and looking for something in particular, disruption affects their whole process, which is a problem for them. On the other hand, finding something that disrupts us in a way that grabs our attention makes us think or makes us look at it can be a good thing. The trick to overcoming perceptual vigilance is finding disruption that consumers can relate to. Publishers have got to be aware of different age socio-economic groups who might be consuming their content. When we can find something that is specific and interesting to particular groups, we should aim to match these stories with relevant audiences.“

Present consumers with context


The key to ensuring we’re engaging consumers with content, rather than irritating them, is context. If we can present consumers with content we know they are likely to be interested in, we can use the element of surprise to our advantage. If we use disruptive techniques without considering context, we’re likely to irritate consumers and risk turning them off our brand, message or campaign completely.

With the advent of GDPR, advertisers have a real opportunity to heed this advice and focus on creating compelling, narrative-led content to engage consumers, rather than the hyperactive, programmatic approach that has helped create the attention-deficit economy we now have.

Now the reset button has been hit on consumer data, I firmly believe contextually targeted storytelling can help rebuild a degree of trust between advertisers and consumers. If we’re delivering messaging that takes its cues from a person’s actual interests and activities, we’re much more likely to deliver relevant content that is of interest to consumers, and in turn more likely to hold their attention long enough to convey our message.

*Source: Business Insider.

About Kai Henniges

Kai is the co-founder and CEO of video intelligence, a contextual video ad platform that connects publishers, content providers and brands through storytelling. Kai founded video intelligence in 2016, and previously co-founded video on demand service Viewster.
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Read more: Burberry, GDPR

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