Have you got a couple of seconds? Have a look at the pictures above. They are all designed to capture or hook your attention.
I hope one of those grabbed you. By the way, it does not matter if they turned you on or off – what I’m trying to do is stimulate your fast archaic loop for processing that bypasses the cortex (which you must have returned to if you’re still reading!) and engages the autonomic nervous system – the one that controls heart-rate, pulse, feelings…more instinctive, automatic processes if you like.
The point here is that by engaging this by-pass we put your emotions more in control of your responses. Your feelings are now plugged directly into the stimulus – and will be influential in generating a response. That’s why sex sells. As does the power of ‘free’ (see Dan Ariely’s, Predictably Irrational). Nowadays there are more and more books that speak about the huge role of the unconscious in driving decisions, choices and behaviour. Here are links to just two of them:
In an era of shorter attention spans, where unconscious process are often in the driving seat, the hook becomes an all-important mechanism. The hook is the means by which you attract attention it is also the gateway to sustaining attention. In the images above the third ‘hook’ – the falling man picture – is designed to create an element of surprise and wonder – what will happen to the falling man? It also creates a dilemma and the mind does not like unresolved dilemmas, so is tempted to follow them through to resolution – and does this through active fantasy, “I wonder what happened to that guy?”
So in a world that is increasingly full of information, capturing attention is critical. It is inevitable that as the amount of information grows what will decline is the amount of attention given to any particular piece – so you need to know what captures people’s attention and why.
The hook is the most powerful device used in television programming and advertising to gain and sustain the viewer’s attention. In the hands of a master like Jimmy McGovern (who writes ‘gritty’, realistic British drama), there is a clear formula – which in condensed form also applies to television advertising and online content. This formula is not expressed anywhere as a theorem, but in reviewing the most successful TV dramas and commercials of the last twenty years I have noticed that the ‘hook’ must be employed within five minutes of starting the programme – within seconds if it is a commercial.
There are several types of hook and they vary between the sensory hooks that seize our attention because they are outside of normal experience, and the underlying deeper motive or part of us that the lure attempts to hook. We will deal with three stimulus variants first:
1. The shock – this is usually some quite spectacular or unexpected event, like the world falling asleep in FastForward, the battle on the beaches in the first minutes of Saving Private Ryan or a killing in a crime show. The engaging nature of the shock results from the adrenalin rush or excitement that it causes. In commercials, shocks are less serious, more bizarre or unreal, like the city-wide roller-coaster in the Barclaycard Contactless commercial or the flash mobs in airports or stations in the T-mobile campaign. The shock both hooks you and stimulates your adrenalin which in turn focuses your attention.
2. The puzzle. It is usual for the shock to give rise to the puzzle – and for the puzzle to be the means by which attention is sustained. Puzzles leave the watcher wondering – what, why, who, how – questions that demand resolution. It is the success of these elements in holding our attention – the shock leading into the puzzle, that make crime shows the world’s most popular entertainment.
Two interesting forms of puzzle that have contemporary value are
- The technological puzzle – a conundrum that can only be resolved using scientific and technological procedures of the highest order – many of us are endlessly tinkering with these as we try to improve our skills in surfing, streaming, downloading etc. This type of puzzle is the basis of the CSI television series.
- The paradox – here the essential hook lies in the contradiction between truth and falsity – an obvious delight for the participant, providing the paradox is ultimately resolved. What is the answer? Which are legitimate clues, which red-herrings?
3. The Competition. Who will win? Who will be best? How would I do facing these tests? Could I beat these people? Nowadays, the reality TV shows – like X Factor – in which people start out as beginners and are rapidly transformed into ‘stars’ draw the highest audiences of any TV show in the land. As you will notice as you read below, the competition plays straight into both regressive (Play) and progressive (Power) motives.
Now coming onto the deeper motivations, there are four main areas where things hook us:
1. Seduction – something is so attractive and desirable that you are magnetised and held in its sway. This can be a person, a product or an idea. It’s easiest when its straightforward sexual attraction, but you will notice that many other things are either associated with sex or presented in such style that they seem sensual. Lighting and camerawork can make a car look sleek, cool and sexy.
2. Power – the most progressive hooking mechanism is the suggestion that you will be in some way increased should you buy the product or service. It will enhance your image, your speed, your appearance, your prestige or status. Since so much of our society is preoccupied with status and standing, having more power – even if only by association – is no mean thing.
3. Comfort – more regressive in approach, these hooks usually rely upon memory or familiarity, prior knowledge or interest. Sentimentality is often a key ingredient. We all have our favourites, things we are drawn to automatically – because we are fans, because we have invested in earlier episodes or versions, because there is a lot of hype/media interest, because we know that all our friends are also using or watching the same things. One of the wonderful things about the comfort hook is that it involves minimum effort!
4. Play – again, appealing to the regressive, more childlike part of us are the appeals to play. Often these involve a large component of active fantasy as we can see in commercials for video games or new programmes/movies.
We all inhabit a world where people are increasingly setting out to hook or engage our attention. The consequence of this fight for our minds is that we have engineered increasingly sophisticated defences. The most direct of these is Studied Inattention. Its partner is rebuttal.
Contemporary opinion suggests that marketing and advertising has less power because of the diversification of channels and platforms. My own view is that this is often an excuse for work that has a low or inaccurate appreciation of hooks and/or motivations.
Here is Mark’s entire talk from the MRS Brand Research conference in June 2011. He introduces the key idea from his new book and any of you who have read (or meant to read!) Herd should grab a copy of this when it’s out! You will find a link to Mark’s site in the right hand area of this page.
For anyone not familiar with Mark’s work, he emphasises how much of what we do is influenced by the social aspect of our nature. We spend a lot of time observing, learning from and copying each other. When you think how different this is from the huge influence of psychotherapy – where the proposition is that you can be anyone you want to be – and, above all, be an individual, you’ll appreciate how welcome and controversial Mark’s perspective is. Being the kind of rigorous and scientific thinker that he is, Mark has assembled a formidable array of evidence for his point of view. Some of it is mentioned here. As are the mysterious Mountains of Kong!
I am very excited about the new movies arriving on the site! In addition to Shaun’s original take on political brands and the Tories moving away from revitalizing their brand to an opportunist position, we have three leading thinkers in Rory Sutherland, Mark Earls and Wendy Gordon talking about the fundamental mistakes common to modern market research – and qualitative work in particular. Mistakes that are based in misunderstandings of our nature and how we make choices.
If you are someone who works in research, marketing, social science or related fields, you must take a few minutes to listen to these folks.
Rory manages to encompass Harrison’s clocks (Longitude), how you know whether men have committed adultery or not and how dogs catch Frisbees in an exhilarating rap about the logical errors of modern market research and why inquiring into the reasons for decisions is largely a waste of time. His talk is first, posted as I must to observe YouTube’s restriction in two sections. Both parts are on the site now!
Next week Mark Earls, talks about his forthcoming book, “I’ll have what she’s having” and makes a powerful case for social over individual learning and the role of mimicry and diffusion among groups of people driving most if not all of our brand choices.
Finally,in two week’s time Wendy gives a beautiful introduction to the principles and ideas of Behavioural Economics. Again I have divided these talks into two sections to keep the rules!
We are at a turning point in our industry. Three huge innovations, social learning, co-creation and behavioural economics are set to change the way we think about ourselves and each other. These findings have massive implications for the way we conduct and think about enquiries and cast much doubt on conventional qualitative methods.
I am proud to be able to present the wisdom and inspiration of these brilliant colleagues and friends to you. If you would like an uninterrupted, uncut version of any of these talks, just email me and I will send it to you. You will find links to the speaker’s websites in the links section on the right hand side of the page and my email address on the contacts page.
My Tip this week: get your groups arguing. Read on and you’ll see why.
If you have a set of alternatives to evaluate its likely there are two main question you’ll want to answer: which is strongest and why?
There are any number of ways in which one thing may be stronger than others, but we know that liking is a key attribute of preferences that lead to purchase. In many years of market testing Unilever have established this attribute’s importance. They have also shown that ‘likelihood to purchase’ is strongly correlated with buying in the real world – so you want to ask your respondents: ‘which do you like best?’ and ‘which would prompt you to buy?’ Of course you’ll do this in the words that work best for you but my advice is to keep it simple!
Next we come to the question of ‘why?’ If yours is a qualitative project, almost certainly some degree of diagnostics will be expected of you. Here the science and the state of our knowledge suggests that our respondents are much less likely to know why they chose one thing over another than they think!
Of the ten seminal papers on this site, 1,2 6 & 7 are relevant to this issue of awareness of our own ‘reasons’.
So, what should we do? The answer to this kind of methodological question is often to be found by questioning your own daily practices. How do you and your family reach decisions about prefrences in daily life? In my family it is almost always by discussion and argument, in which one side (even if only one side of your own mind!) presents its arguments against the other and they battle it out. We try to stop short of outright fights!
In my experience modern focus groups might do a bit of discussing – if there’s time, – but almost never any argument. This is for two main reasons:
1. There is a fear of argument and dissent in groups – that this activity would make the respondents uncomfortable – and more importantly, might make the moderator and the clients uncomfortable too.
2. Rhetoric, or the skill of argument is unfashionable in this empirical age. We are not taught how to argue in a civilised manner – and thus argument often appears uncivilised!
This is where Breakthrough Psychology comes in handy. One of the key techniques of abnorming (the founding principle of Breakthrough psychology), is called the Flip. To do it you just flip what is normally done on its head and do the opposite. So, if most groups don’t argue, we must find a way to use argument – and everyday life is actually packed full of it – in our groups or interviews.
How do you do that? My experience suggests that making it into a game is the best way. To do this you divide your group up into 3 teams, two trios and a pair (for a standard 8 member group – vary numbers if you have different size groups). Each trio chooses a different route from those you are evaluating and has five minutes to come up with a ‘pitch’ to the other group members on why this route works best for them. The pitch must be no longer than a couple of minutes. Then, once the first trio has done its pitch, the second trio goes on, pitching another preferred route using their arguments.
The point of this is that in order to ‘pitch’ something, people have to grapple with the original, turn it into their own words, extract what is of value from it and also what it means to them. It is these two elements meaning and value that will give you the best diagnostics. They also have to practice condensation, another crucial ingredient of evaluation work – forcing us to summarise virtues.
The remaining pair + the moderator form an audience and create a score out of ten for each pitch. That score can be linked to some attribute if you wish, like true to the brand, strength of appeal, whatever your client is trying to understand about the value of the routes. Or they can just comment on their experience of the pitches without scoring if you prefer. I recommend getting the scores!
Whether you end up focusing on one preferred route or more in your report/analysis is up to you and shaped by your brief.
Try this out in your next focus groups or post a comment with any questions you have and I will try to answer them.