Our brains are designed to fil­ter the bar­rage of sen­sa­tion and selec­tively focus on what’s impor­tant. The part of your brain that reg­u­lates your atten­tion is the retic­u­lar acti­vat­ing sys­tem (RAS), and it’s trig­gered by four main atten­tion grabbers:

  • Nov­elty: You respond to what’s new and unique in your envi­ron­ment. When you’re at the sym­phony and some­one in the back row sud­denly starts whistling, you’ll lis­ten no mat­ter how much you try to focus on the vio­lin solo.
  • Phys­i­cal need: When you’re hun­gry and wait­ing for your order at a restau­rant, you watch every tray that passes by.
  • Self-made choice: When you know there’s a fore­casted meteor shower, you con­sciously decide to walk out­side and look at the stars for 20 minutes.
  • Your name: Your own name will always sound spe­cial to you.

To Open Doors, Act Like a Door-to-Door Salesperson

The door-to-door sales­per­son gives the RAS all the right sig­nals to gain prospects’ atten­tion. In my days as a door-to-door sales­per­son, we were employ­ing con­tent mar­ket­ing to make the sale. We deliv­ered per­son­al­ized, infor­ma­tive, and enter­tain­ing con­tent to the indi­vid­ual, only our con­tent was ver­bal and phys­i­cal, not made up of text and graphics.

The sim­i­lar­i­ties between door-to-door sales and Web con­tent man­age­ment don’t end there. There are three strate­gies for hold­ing atten­tion that the face-to-face and dig­i­tal mar­keter both utilize.

1. Be Unique

Appeal to the brain’s search for nov­elty. In “The Social Media Sci­en­tist,” Dan Zarrella found that “ReTweets tend to con­tain less com­mon words than nor­mal Tweets.” That means uncom­mon tweets catch and hold a person’s inter­est long enough for that per­son to fol­low through with a retweet.

There’s a rea­son jour­nal­ists scram­ble to break a story. Being the first can bring a huge boost in read­er­ship. If you can’t be the first to write about a topic, give it a fresh spin or take a bold stance. For exam­ple, if every­one is buzzing about how awe­some Iron Man 3 is, share your top three rea­sons why Iron Man sucks. Peo­ple will be intrigued enough to read a dis­sent­ing voice, even if they don’t agree.

2. Be Magnetic

Learn the prospect’s name and use it. When you hear your name repeated by another human, you are drawn in. When you see your name in an email greet­ing, you’re more likely to open and read the email. But that’s just a first step. From there, con­tent must have per­son­al­ity and perspective.

The Con­tent Mar­ket­ing Insti­tute issued a fas­ci­nat­ing list of “21 Types of Con­tent We Crave,” includ­ing con­tent that

  • makes us cry,
  • reminds us we are one of a kind,
  • reveals a secret, and
  •  reminds us that life is short.

Mag­netic con­tent touches deep, human emo­tions and res­onates with our core desires and beliefs. What­ever your con­tent may be—even if you’re writ­ing about zit cream or sell­ing ency­clo­pe­dias door-to-door—weave a uni­ver­sal story that con­nects with our hearts, not our heads.

3. Be Valuable

Hold­ing atten­tion is about putting value in your con­tent. What do vis­i­tors get in exchange for their time? It might be knowl­edge and exper­tise, humor and escape, a sense of com­mu­nity and iden­tity, or exclu­sive offers and dis­counts. When you open a con­ver­sa­tion that puts the prospects’ inter­ests ahead of your own, they will lower their guard and will­ingly give you more attention.

You want to infuse your con­tent with mean­ing and value, yet keep read­ers want­ing more. A study by Roper Pub­lic Affairs found that “80 per­cent of busi­ness deci­sion mak­ers pre­fer to get com­pany infor­ma­tion in a series of arti­cles ver­sus an adver­tise­ment.” These buy­ers want infor­ma­tion that “helps them make bet­ter prod­uct deci­sions,” not flash­ing dis­play ads in their browser.

The Ele­ment of Choice

 One amaz­ing part of the RAS is the ele­ment of self-made choice. We do have power over our atten­tion spans and how we direct our focus. Instead of fear­ing the individual’s power to choose (and poten­tially not choose your brand), become the brand that is most wor­thy of atten­tion. Remem­ber, you are speak­ing to com­plex and often bril­liant peo­ple who jug­gle com­pet­ing needs and desires. If your con­tent can both speak to their human­ity and make life a lit­tle eas­ier, you’ll become the obvi­ous choice.