My kids have ADHD. I have ADHD. Having a background in developmental biology, I’ve been fascinated to learn how this whole attention thing works, and how you can manipulate attention in yourself and others. I think the reasons are obvious- if your attention is jumpy, if it’s like hanging around with someone who keeps changing the TV channels just as you start to get into a show, figuring how to wrestle that control away from¬† someone else and learning how to control your own focus, as you want, is critical. ¬† Likewise, if you want to make sure people watch or pay attention where you want them to, knowing how to capture and sustain attention is going to be important. If I want my kids, for example, to focus on their homework, we have to provide hooks and incentives to make sure they get it done. Moral compunction only works for so long. In the end, sustaining their attention means finding way to give them a bigger context for what their learning- to make it more meaningful, interesting and relevant to them.

In the marketing world, or in the world in general, you have two big problems. The first is how to attract attention, and the second is what to do with it once you’ve got it.

The first step, gaining attention, requires you making enough noise, or getting notice or promoted by the right people. This is what Seth Godin means when he talks about making something remarkable- you have to do something worth while talking about and passing along. This means you have to have a product that is relevant and meaningful to the people you want to talk about it. If you have a crap product, a crap service, or something that does not stand out, you won’t be able to attract attention or sustain it for very long. Let’s assume for a second you have a remarkable product. Let’s assume you have a plan in place to gain the attention you seek.

Step Two requires sustaining attention. That means that people who have cared in Step One are willing to talk about your product/service/idea, and pass it around to others. It means that the people your evangelists talk to will find the service/product/idea as remarkable as the evangelists did. This means you need authentic, real opinions- the kind you can’t just pay for. If you can’t get anyone to like your product without a significant bribe/incentive, you should consider whether or not that means you have a flaw in your product. You won’t be able to sustain any sort of attention if the product isn’t relevant and doesn’t encourage people to spread the word. And if the only way you can spread the word is by bribing people to do so, you’ll never know if you have a real audience- maybe you’ll only have a purchased one.

If your product/service/idea gains momentum, it may become self-sustaining. Look at the case of the Fail Whale on twitter. The Fail Whale was a piece of art at, adopted b y the Twitter people to show when twitter was over the limit and having “issues”. It became a somewhat beloved icon, and has even won awards for great design, now leading to a Fail Whale fan club and even making some money through swag for the original artist. The artist never went into this with the thought that her painting would be an icon for the internet- it just ended up happening that way in an organic fashion over time. The artwork caught someone’s attention, became propagated through Twitter, and now has spawned kinetic sculptures, gear, fans and more. The fail whale may not need any additional attention or marketing to make it more famous- but it sure has served to get the artist more attention than she ever dreamed of otherwise- giving her a platform for future work. You could not have done this by trying to make it famous through a blogger outreach program, through placed advertizing or anything else. It was organic growth, oure and simple, in the truest sense of Word of Mouth.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Attention, and its first cousin, motivation, are things we all have to understand when we think about how to spread the word about our ideas or products. In a perfect marketplace of ideas, we hope the best ones rise to the top, and the worst ones are buried. But even mediocre ideas can catch on (how else can you explain Chia Pets??) if you have can catch someone’s attention and sustain it long enough to convert that attention to a sale.

It’s always going to be more than wrapping up your ideas in pretty packages and bows and ribbons- but even good ideas need a bit of attention-grabbing before they’ll catch on. Otherwise, they are nothing more than one of many ideas floating around, hoping and praying for a bit of attention, from someone- anyone. This is where relevance comes in.

Lots of ideas are interesting- but it’s the ones with relevance that we glom onto and hang onto. I know for me, personally, there are lots of ideas I have simmering on the back burner- things that have caught my attention, but aren’t of immediate relevance or importance. But then something happens, my needs change, and that back burner idea or project is right there, just waiting to be acted on- like finding something terrific in your pantry- it’s been there all the time, just waiting for you to take notice and act. This trigger from base-level awareness to action isn’t always easy to find.

For example- Why did I go off and buy a new digital recorder when I already have one? Well, I needed one that would take a standard microphone XLR cable for a class I was teaching. I knew the Zoom H4 had such a jack, but having an H2, I didn’t really see a need for the H4 until this specific set of circumstances occurred to make it relevant in my life. What I had worked fine; but the H4 solved a problem, and it was my ambient awareness that this would solve my problem- that it was relevant to me, that made the sale. No one could have done anything to make me make this decision any sooner.

So you can’t force anyone to convert from a browser to a customer until it’s relevant to them. You can be in their attention sphere, you can make a case for why you can be relevant and solve their problems, but until they really need to solve that problem now, no amount of attention-getting will guarantee that conversion.

So for all of you who are considering whether endorsements sell products, you have to recognize that endorsements and advertising only help gain attention- they sow the seeds- whether or not they will germinate is really not up to you- that’s up to your customers alone. if you understand then what attention is and what it does, perhaps it will help you be more realistic about ROI. For conversion, you need to concentrate much more on motivation and relevance- attention is only one piece of the bigger pie.