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.