Customer Attention

Attention Limitations

Getting customer attention is critical. But how consumers pay attention paints a surprising picture. In the face of growing volumes of knowledge and information, consumers are not capable of paying any more conscious attention than the capacity of the brain allows them to absorb. There is a physical, biological limitation.

The Incredible Shrinking Brain

The most influential research ever done on the topic of attention is the famous study conducted by George Miller titled, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two:  Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” Miller’s  publication about how we think, has become one of the most frequently cited articles in psychology.   Its implications are stunning: the conscious-rational mind can’t process more than seven bits of information at any one time.

In perspective, using computer metrics, scientists apply a scale that measures the unconscious mind capacity for 11 million bits of broadband data per second; while the conscious mind trickles at only 70 broadband bits. Marketers need to let this sink in. That’s 157,143 times more unconscious processing power! And yet, most marketing research is geared only to respondent self-reporting of conscious information. It is this tiny fraction of customer attention that is delivered to marketers for strategy and messaging.

More recently scientists have added fuel to the fire.  Gordon Parker of the University of New South Wales says a re-analysis of Miller’s experiments, show he missed the mark. It’s actuall only four bits of information, or 40 broadband bits per second.  The conscious-rational mind just keeps getting “smaller!”  People are still smart – just in a very different way than we thought. When marketers rely on research that is from conscious rational responses, they are leaving the big brain unattended and trying to get benefits from the little brain.

Big Brain Versus Little Brain

In the face of this science, marketers who continue to invest in only the small brain, are betting on long odds.  It turns out the unconscious-emotional mind has most of the horsepower for buying decisions.

When customers choose to buy a product, the decision is triggered by a myriad of automatic stimulants that are out of their awareness. At 268 miles per hour, the brain connects to 100 trillion synapses. For example, when a consumer compares one product to another, hidden from their awareness, the brain is computing multiple subtle pain and pleasure signals that influence the choice, all taking place faster than the conscious brain can possibly register!

Why Geeky Brain Science Matters for Marketers

Scientific discoveries about how humans make decisions is growing as fast as Moore’s Law. As marketers we have to keep up in order to remain competitive. Traditional marketing focuses almost exclusively on what consumers can report about themselves. By asking consumers why and how they make decisions, we assume reliable, predictive data.  Regrettably, in the process we abandon the 11,000,000 bits of buying decision “horsepower” and leave it on the table for someone else to discover and use.

System 1

In Behavioral Economics we call the big brain “System 1.” This is the emotional and non-conscious 11,000,000 bits that dominate buying decisions. Marketers who seek a competitive breakthrough won’t find it, if they focus only on the 40 bits of rational self-reporting.

The Whole Mind, Not a Fraction

Marketers trust researchers to provide reliable information about consumer needs and wants. Yet most marketing research relies almost exclusively on customer self-reporting.

Self-reporting, by definition is conscious. It emphasizes the System 2 little brain instead the influential System 1 big brain. To be reliable and strategic, researchers must have a different skill set. They need methodologies built from the ground up to identify System 1 – the big brain that dominates buying decisions.

Clevenger Associates reveals the Whole Mind of the consumer.