A news item on the radio today caught my imagination. It made the point that many of us today suffer from a hitherto undocumented mental illness, the core symptom of which is an inability to focus one’s attention for any significant amount of time (have I lost you yet?). This often chronic condition is brought about by the ever increasing amount of digital disruptive media which we receive onto various devices around us: PCs, mobiles, telephones, and so on.
As I write this sentence Skype is bleeping an alert and a little bubble is popping up in the corner of my screen containing the first (meaningless) line of a chat conversation going on in the agency between a few people. Now an email alert (Subject line: Monthly newsletter: January 2010) is popping up and a text (minutes remaining on my price plan) has just arrived on my mobile phone. Someone tweets “an interesting article on the digital economy ”.
So far I am not struggling to maintain my concentration. The temptation to turn my alert-blasted attention to these items is small. Have I lost you yet?
But why is this a bad thing? Maintaining my concentration on a subject allows me to understand it properly, to master it – it’s even satisfying, which in turn is relaxing. However, by doing this I am devoting so much of my precious time that I will never even know about a hundred other things that happened while I was absorbed. It’s the difference between knowledge that is a mile wide and an inch deep or an inch wide and a mile deep. Like many things in life, the solution is to find the happy medium. I need my alerts so that I can choose where to devote my attention.
This is where so many digital communication tools fail – be they email subject lines, banners ads, newsfeeds on websites, mobile apps or intranets. They miss the point that I am flitting from one alert to another looking for something to engage my peppered mind. Many headlines don’t tempt me because they are poorly written or – worse – are simply the first 50 characters taken from the first paragraph. In order to win the battle for my concentration – my click – you need to capture it.
The headline is the first and most crucial shot fired in this battle. So think about your email subject line. Think about the headlines and images on your homepage. Think about the first few words of your tweet. If you don’t then no one else will either.
Evidently, I didn’t lose you yet. Thanks for sticking with me; now go and read something else.