4 Questions for Ben Parr: Igniting a Bonfire of Attention for Your Brand

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Ben Parr

Journalist and entrepreneur Ben Parr knows a thing or two about capturing attention in the digital age. If you followed social media and Internet trends beginning in 2008 and up to the present, you couldn't have missed his articles or his voice. As co-editor and editor-at-large for Mashable, he wrote more than 2,400 articles, and he has been featured in or on CNET, CNBC, CNN, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, NPR and the New York Times.

Parr has poured his own experience as a journalist and as co-founder and managing partner of early-stage venture capital firm DominateFund—along with heavy-duty research—into his new book, "Captivology: The Science of Capturing People’s Attention." On Aug. 6 in San Francisco at PR News' Big 4 Social Media Conference he'll be discussing the practical applications of his findings about the deep-rooted, primal nature of human attention, and how technology has altered the way attention is captured. Parr gives us a preview of his keynote presentation in  the following Q&A.

PR News: In "Captivology," you write about the three types of attention—immediate, short and long attention. Of the three, is there one type that PR pros and marketers should focus on more than others?

Ben Parr: The key is to walk your audience though all three stages of attention. You can't focus on long attention without capturing immediate and short attention. Short attention doesn’t matter if you can’t transform it into long attention. The issue is that companies, organizations, marketers and PR pros often focus on one or two stages of attention rather than the entire process. The tendency of most brands is to focus on short attention but without real consideration of how to turn it into longtime interest and fandom. Conversion is really poor when you don’t think about long attention.

PR News: You also discuss the seven captivation triggers that can be used to capture these three types of attention, the first being the automaticity trigger, which, as you write, is “our unconscious tendency to shift our attention toward the sights, sounds and other sensory cues important to our safety and survival.” How can brands harness the power of this primal trigger to capture attention for their services or products?

Parr: By being conscious of how you’re presenting your content. Something as simple as a color scheme can have a dramatic impact. More than half of an individual’s perception of a brand or logo comes from the color scheme. You need to know how your audience reacts culturally and in a primal way to different colors and inputs. If you do it wrong you risk alienating an audience from the onset.

PR News: Which brands excel at creating what you call a “bonfire of attention”?

Parr: I’ll mention two random ones. On the charity side, charity: water does a fantastic job with visual storytelling and is incredible at engaging its audience in a sophisticated way. When you donate to charity: water you’re donating to a specific well, and they’ll send you updates about that well and the people that well is helping. People want to donate again because they know what impact their money is making.

GEICO, which has been around forever, is another example. They could easily be viewed as a big, lumbering insurance company, but their ad campaigns and consistency with their brand has made for positive brand identity. The GEICO Gecko is an instantly likable character and campaign that they stuck with, which is the key here. That helps them interface with the public instead of being the bad guy, which is so easy in insurance.

PR News: What’s one insight about capturing attention that you want to share with Big 4 Conference attendees in San Francisco? What’s the first step they need to take to align what they do with the way the human mind focuses its attention?

Parr: Immediately understand your audience’s frame of reference and when they’re most receptive to your message, and find a way to disrupt your audience’s expectations and surprise them, especially if you are trying to introduce your brand to a new audience.

Ben Parr will be the keynote speaker at PR News' Big 4 Conference in San Francisco on Aug. 6. Check out the entire speaker roster.

Follow Ben Parr: @benparr

Follow Steve Goldstein:@SGoldsteinAI