Why you need to win the war for learner attention

By Steve George February 09, 2015

We live in an attention economy. There is too much information out there, and simply not enough neural capacity to filter, organize and make sense of it all. The winners in this economy are those who have cultivated the art of attracting attention to themselves. People like Kim Kardashian – who has made a lucrative business out of attracting attention to herself on behalf of sponsors.

I might be pushing it a bit if I said that as a head of L&D you are in direct competition with Kim Kardashian for learner attention, but it is undoubtedly true that your learners are subject to the same dynamic that is seeing the entire information industry chasing a vanishingly small public attention span: ‘Encouraging adults to pay attention to lectures for more than 15 minutes has always been a challenge … However, now, attention spans and patience are measured in minutes and seconds – especially on laptops, tablets, and smartphones’ (Bersin 2014).

Learners are becoming more impatient, more self-directed in their learning, and have ever greater access to always-on mobile computing. This puts you in competition with sources such as Wikipedia and the major social media platforms. We know from research (including the latest report from Towards Maturity) that learners learn best through social collaboration and actively look for this too. These sources can give quick answers to problems your employees face in their everyday work, but the information might not be correct, or aligned with your organisation’s values and compliance obligations. Make no mistake about it: you are engaged in a war for learner attention. Here are five tips for how to win.

As providers of learning and information we need to make sure our information is what learners go to, and that it grabs their attention and holds their interest sufficiently so that they don’t need to look elsewhere.

Key considerations for doing this include:

  • Immediacy of access
  • Relevance to the learner’s role, needs and work context
  • Perceived trustworthiness – involving not just ‘the stamp of authority’, but also regularity of update, and evidence of critical analysis (or curation) of any recommended external sources

Five tips that will help you win the war for learner attention

1. Design for purpose

Treat different content differently. Sometimes a 30 second “sting” animation at the outset will create a talking point that makes the learning go viral in the organization. In other circumstances, however, it could be an annoyance that obstructs learners in finding what they need quickly, and might prove counter-productive. There are no ‘magic bullets’ in learning design: it has to be suited to the job at hand.

Treat learners differently too. Does everyone need to do the full 15 minutes? Or can some people just do the assessment and a pass can be taken as an assumption that they have what they need? Pre-tests and adaptive structures can compress total learning time and massively help engagement.

2. Use emotional hooks

We’ve all seen how emotional hooks work on news websites: half a dozen links are often grouped together that compete in trying appeal to at least one basic emotion. Humans respond best when something stimulates a basic emotional response. And whichever theory of basic emotion you use they generally cover similar bases: anger/rage, disgust/fear, anxiety/anticipation, happiness/surprise, sadness.

Have a look at the pictures and text below, and the emotional hooks they are using: happiness/surprise, and two for anxiety/anticipation – with a bit of fear thrown in too. Just enough information is provided to make you want to seek out more information so as to validate, qualify, take an action in response to, or dispel, your immediate emotional response.

Pictures containing emotional 'hooks' from a news webpage

So what will hook your learners? What is the emotional response that will engage them? A Sales Manager once told me that the only thing that ever got him to view a piece of e-learning was when he was told that his main competitor said it would help him close more business. He was responding with anger/rage and anxiety/anticipation to this challenge from a rival.

3. Be visual

Pictures work. Notice the important part played by images in the hooks above.

Take the cat, for instance. It is well known cats are amongst the most posted pictures on the internet, so here it’s an instant visual attractor to people who look for that kind of thing. Only the small text underneath shows that this is actually a Credit Card ad.

The lady on the toilet? Most people will look and think, ‘what the..?’ – but it gets attention (this link also exists with a caption along the line of ‘women like her are saving hundreds of pounds shopping while in the bathroom’. She’s also holding an aspirational item that is gender neutral so it’s not just about shopping for women, it’s for men too – this is an internet auction site.

The worried woman with the two children is a classic photograph that will have historical resonance for some, and raise empathy for others – perhaps fear too. It’s compelling and hard to ignore.

Think about how you could use pictures to hook people in to your learning. What would be compelling, but at the same time appropriate? Launch with an infographic to provoke thought? A graphic to shock or intrigue? Think about your audience and how to grab their focus on what they are about to experience, rather than what they wish they were experiencing instead.

But keep it simple – don’t use unnecessary, decorative images. Make sure the images are relevant, high quality, and definitely not obvious ‘stock’ photography.

4. K.I.S.S.

  • Learners are time poor. Research indicates that you have roughly five seconds to get their engagement and hold their focus
  • Keep it visually simple: a cluttered page loses them in the first second
  • Complex language alienates people – but then again, overly simplistic language can come across as patronising people: work on getting the tone of voice right
  • What is the first thing you want a learner to see when they enter your learning? That’s what will make or break it
  • Assume the learner is thinking ‘so what?’ and make sure you answer that question in your opening statements

5. Don’t forget the ‘call to action’

What do you want people to do? Why should they care? It doesn’t have to be explicit but people should quickly feel like there is a purpose, a next action for them, and that this isn’t a passive experience. Explore? Think? Act now?

Challenge people – be provocative, enticing and interesting, and you will certainly grab their attention.

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