Online, the message matters most

Today you have a test. Find something that really, truly interests you and start reading it online. Follow the links and continue reading. Simple. Now look at the address of the website you reach at the end. You could well find it is entirely different to the one you started at. When we find something which grabs our attention we tend to retain our interest in it, regardless of any other factors. Often, you will be buying a product from one website, only to find that the item is served to you by a completely different site. But rarely do we take any notice, because our brain is so focused on getting whatever it is we want.

A fascinating new study shows how our attentional processes prevent us from noticing surrounding changes. In this study, researchers from Chicago performed a telephone survey of participants. However, every fourth question the interviewer was changed. Three female questioners were used, each with different vocal frequencies. At the end of the study only on person in every 16 noticed that the voice seemed to have changed. Even when prompted at the end of the interview process, most people were unaware they had been speaking to different people during the course of the telephone conversation.

The researchers call this “change deafness” – essentially we are unaware of changes when our brain is paying attention to something else. This kind of phenomenon has been shown in many studies – when we focus on one thing, we are blissfully unaware of others. The “gorilla basketball” video is a classic case.


The Invisible GorillaYou, of course, are “primed” to see the “invisible gorilla” in this video, but when people are unaware in advance, they fail to see the man in the ape costume because they are so focused on counting the passes of the ball. In the telephone interview study a similar process is going on – people are paying so much attention to the questions they fail to be aware that they are being spoken to by a different person. What was interesting in this research, however, was the fact that some people were told in advance the voice “might change”. Afterwards the participants in this part of the research were able to pin-point the exact time when the interviewer changed. This suggests that we are capable of perceiving changes in the world around us, but only taking note of them when they truly matter. That provides us with the brain resources to focus on what does matter.

And therein lies the trick for online success for your business. People are unlikely to notice if the website they are using changes, if the brand is different, if the company selling to them is altered – all that matters is that the message is so well-focused that the web visitor gives their undivided attention to it. Perhaps the reason why brands are so keen to “police” their brand, perhaps the reason why so many small businesses focus on design and consistency is because their messages are comparatively weak. Perhaps if we all focused on truly engaging messages, much else we concentrate on in the online business world wouldn’t really matter that much.

In other words, focus your efforts on creating compelling messages – little else will matter.

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