Hooking Your Audience: 8 Ways to Grab Attention (and Hold onto It)

Grabbing Attention

We live in a world of short attention spans. Attention span is the amount of time that a person can concentrate on a task without becoming distracted.

That task could be learning about your product, figuring out if your service is right for them, etc. In other words, it’s kind of important. You need to learn how to grab attention—and hold it—for your website visitors.

Ideally, prospects browse your site and follow the flow toward an action (e.g. signup, purchase). The more you can sustain the visitor’s attention, the higher the chances are that they’ll convert.

Filters in our brain: what our mind pays attention to

A key part of the brain that focuses attention is the Reticular Activating System (RAS). RAS is best known as a filter because it sorts what’s important (and needs our attention) and what’s unimportant (and can be ignored). Without this filter, we would be overstimulated, distracted by the sights and sounds that surround us.

Because RAS subconsciously monitors all sensory information in the environment around you, it notices changes in stimuli. In addition to alerting the cerebrum to changes in the environment, the RAS also sends signals related to:

  • Physical need. When we’re hungry and we see food, we pay attention. We wake up in the night when we need to go to the bathroom.
  • Self-made choice. We decided to buy a new BMW 325 and suddenly see them everywhere. This effect is also called priming.
  • Your name. We notice the name dearest to us.
  • Emotion. If something evokes emotion in us, it has our attention.
  • Contrast. We pay more attention to things that contrast with other things.
  • Novelty. The brain pays more attention to new things in the environment.

8 ways to grab your audience’s attention

Here’s how to grab attention with your content and hold onto it in a world with short attention spans:

1. Use novelty as often as possible

Neuroscientists say that novelty promotes information transmission. Our minds gravitate toward novelty. Not only does a novel experience capture our attention, it appears to be an essential need of the mind.

Novel means unknown, and what’s unknown demands the attention of our brain. Once the new thing is known and understood, then we look to find another unknown to master.

To sustain your website visitor’s attention, you need to present novelty every second. Compare these two pages:

Page 1

explanation page with lots of text.

Page 2

explanation page with visual design.

Which one was more interesting to look at? Which page captured more of your attention? (The first image was my creation for this post, the second an actual screenshot from Giftrocket.)

No doubt about it, right? The latter had much more novelty and, hence, kept our attention much better.

Text-heavy pages

If you have text-heavy content you want users to read—like long-form sales copy—use novelty to keep their attention and get as many people as possible to read it. Here’s an excerpt of some text-heavy, long-form sales copy:

long-form sales copy example.

Once a visitor arrives on the page and starts reading, the novelty factor disappears within seconds. It’s all displayed in the same, in uniform style. Boooring!

What can we do to improve the novelty factor? How could we spice it up to improve attention? Check out a simple makeover:

long-form sales copy with better visual design

Small changes in background color, text positioning, and new images make the whole thing more interesting to read, increasing the duration of our attention.

Different” beats “same

Our brain pays close attention to patterns and quickly learns to ignore anything that’s routine, repetitive, predictable, or just plain boring.

For humans, spotting changes to patterns used to be about life and death—noticing enemies or animals in the distance, changes on the horizon. Now, the same trait ensures people ignore sameness and pay attention to different.

2. Demonstrate contrast

The brain pays more attention to things that contrast with other things in our environment, or to things that contrast with what came before. This is another evolutionary trait in humans.

The old brain—the part that decides—seeks clear contrast to make instant decisions and avoid confusion that could delay decision-making. You can use it to get people to pay attention to your product by demonstrating its benefits in a before-and-after format:

before-and-after example with physical fitness.

You’ve seen this a million times. It works. It doesn’t have to be about fitness. It can showcase any kind of transformation: wealth, conversion rates, traffic, beauty, size of this or that, cleanliness, remodeling, whatever.

As Patrick Renvoise details in his book Neuromarketing, “the old brain is wired to pay attention to disruptions or changes,” such as before/after, risky/safe, with/without, and fast/slow. To get the old brain’s attention, create contrast and avoid things like neutral statements that diminish it.

Try to come up with a way to use contrast to prove your product’s promise. If you can, attention will follow.

3. Inspire emotion

Create emotions in people, and you’ve got their attention.

Shock is one of oldest tricks in the advertiser’s playbook. When you get people to feel something (anything), they not only pay attention to your message (or visual), but also remember it.

Of course, emotion doesn’t have to be about sex, shock, and scandal, like this Tom Ford ad:

But think back to your last 12 months. Which things do you remember the most? My money is on the events where you felt the most emotion.

“Emotion drives attention which drives learning,” noted Robert Sylwester in A Celebration of Neurons. You can reinforce most messages with an emotional image and emotional copy.

This ad definitely evoked some emotions in me:

Pack some emotion into your visuals and copy, and people will pay more attention to your stuff.

4. Present information in a logical, sequential pattern

John Medina, the author of Brain Rules, says this: “The brain naturally focuses on concepts sequentially one at a time.”

How you structure the content of your pages matters. Start with a clear introduction to explain what it’s all about (value proposition), followed by the body of your presentation (sales copy) and finish by directing your audience to what’s next (call to action).

The sequential flow makes it much easier for your audience to follow and keep their attention. When the text is unclear, too complex, or disjointed, your audience has to work hard to make sense of it. That’s when they start to switch off.

All in all, people are unable to focus on something for more than 10 minutes at a time. You need to close the sale before that (or do something emotionally relevant at each 10-minute mark to regain attention).

5. Focus on the quality of what the reader sees, rather than on their attention span

“There is no such thing as an attention span. There is only the quality of what you are viewing.”

This is a quote from Jerry Seinfeld. He continues on to say that, “This whole idea of an attention span is, I think, a misnomer. People have an infinite attention span if you are entertaining them.”

I believe he’s right. If the content or the way you present it suck, no attention-span trick will help you.

People are generally capable of a longer attention span when they’re doing something enjoyable or intrinsically motivating (or so says Wikipedia). This just confirms what Seinfeld said.

Relevancy is everything. Match the interests and needs of the prospect to your offering and content. Your presentation style needs to be entertaining  and fun enough to sustain attention. Everything else is secondary.

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Ask “What’s in it for me?” for everything on your homepage and sales pages.

6. People don’t read. They scan. Plan accordingly.

We know that people don’t read everything on our website. There’s no way of making them either.

What you can do is enable them to scan better, so they grab the most important parts quickly. How? F-patterns.

Eye-tracking visualizations show that users often read website content in an F-shaped pattern: two horizontal stripes followed by a vertical stripe.

How can you design your site for F-patterns? Read here. (Be aware, though, that F-patterns don’t apply in every context.)

7. Show examples.

The phrase, “Let me show you what I mean,” is one of the best ways to get your point across when trying to explain something. It rivets attention in expectation of visual relevance, something the brain appreciates.

According to Patricia Wolfe,

“Without concrete experience, the [information] may have little meaning, no matter how much someone explains it to you.

When evaluating a product or a service, our brains are working to understand and draw conclusions, to come to a decision. Imagery is a superb way to demonstrate something and provide answers to the questions your brain is asking.

The decision-making part of our brain (“old brain”) prefers visual stimuli that are processed faster than words and concepts. This is why you should provide visual examples along with what you explain in words. Interested to learn more? Read this book.

8. Website speed matters.

Make your site fast. Period. (Use Pingdom to measure your site load speed.)

Even a few seconds’ delay is enough to create an unpleasant user experience. Instead of focusing on your content, they’re consciously annoyed by having to wait for your site to load.

Usability guru Jakob Nielsen states that a 0.1-second site load gives the feeling of instantaneous response. One second keeps the user’s flow of thought seamless. Users can sense a delay, but they still feel in control of the overall experience. A 10-second delay will often make users leave a site immediately.

Firefox noticed that when their site loaded 1 second slower, they got a conversions decreased by 2.7%Bing and Google found that a delay as small as 0.4 seconds reduced people’s use of the sites—on that visit and in future visits. Amazon reported that a 100 ms increase in speed increased revenue by 1%.

How to make your site faster


Think about your attention. Did you really read the whole thing in one go? How much did you skip? What else did you do while reading this article?

If you want to earn more attention from your site visitors, keep these eight things in mind:

  1. Novelty keeps you going.
  2. Demonstrate contrast.
  3. Inspire emotion.
  4. Present information in a logical, sequential pattern.
  5. “There is no such thing as an attention span. There is only the quality of what you are viewing.”
  6. People don’t read. They can. Plan accordingly.
  7. Show examples.
  8. Website speed matters.

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Join the conversation Add your comment

  1. Thank you for this useful information. Obviously it took a lot of research to come up with the facts.

  2. Great post. I didn’t know that such things are very much important in web design. Thanks again.

  3. Very educational. Thanks for putting it up.
    I scanned first time and saw that “there is something for me here”.
    I read the whole thing from the start there after.

    Great compilation and you have presented what you have preached precisely on this page!

    Yes, the Lips Sell. Got my stare.

    You know most people are beautiful when they live an organic life, it is all those things that the artificial world generates that alters peoples images of themselves.

    Fast food, too long hours of work, not enough time to give yourself the good things.

    Have a great day!

  4. papillio birkenstock

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Hooking Your Audience: 8 Ways to Grab Attention (and Hold onto It)