John Bonini is a leader in growth and user acquisition. He works at databox. He’s also an award-winning writer, and his podcast, Louder Than Words, was named by Inc. as one of the “12 marketing podcasts you should listen to every week.”

2 Scientifically Proven Ways for Capturing People’s Immediate Attention with Your Content

2 Scientifically Proven Ways for Capturing People’s Immediate Attention with Your Content

So how good do you think your memory is? 

Can’t recall? (Poorly executed joke, but I had to.)

Let’s have a little fun and find out.

Take twenty seconds and try to remember as many of the following words as possible. When you’re finished, jot them all down somewhere. Ready? 








Jim Carrey







Birds nest

So here’s the reality; your memory is no better (or worse) than the average person's. (At least exponentially.) 

Most of us have a hard time remembering a list of items this long, especially when only given 20 seconds. 

Why do you think we carry around grocery lists? And we have all the time in the world to remember that.

It’s a volume issue. We simply find it very hard to remember a laundry list of items.

But I’ll make a bet that you at least remembered two words from the above list: Tulips and Jim Carrey.  

Why? Because both of them stood out in different ways. When faced with a high-volume of information, our brain’s natural defense mechanism is to quickly identify items that stand out. 

In other words, we notice things that are different. This is referred to in psychology at The Automaticity Trigger

What’s That? 

The Automaticity Trigger is our brain’s way of using sensory cues to quickly sort through information. 

It’s instinctive. It’s the mechanism responsible for capturing our immediate attention.

The reason you hear someone call your name in a crowded, noisy room? The Automaticity Trigger. 

The reason you jump out of your seat at a loud, unexpected noise? The Automaticity Trigger.

It shocks you into attention. And because of that, it’s incredibly powerful. 

How does this relate to content?

The Automaticity Trigger captures our immediate attention in one of two ways: contrast and association. 

Both were at work in our above exercise. 

The reason why you remembered Tulips is because it was bigger and darker than all the other words. I created contrast, and as a result, it captured your immediate attention and you remembered it. 

The reason why you remembered Jim Carrey? While it didn’t contrast in size or color with the other words, it was completely out of place. A bunch of words regarding to the outdoors…and then Jim Carrey? 

Association – or lack thereof – is another way The Automaticity Trigger sorts through information. 


You hear so much about how we’ve reached a saturation point in regards to content creation on the web. 

We haven’t. Unique and quality never saturate. 

What we have reached is a saturation point of monotony. Most websites – and company blogs – have messaging and language very similar to competitors.

As consumers, our Automaticity Trigger quickly sorts this repetition out in search of something different to capture out attention. 

This makes creating contrast – think Tulips above – essential in gaining any sort of traction. 

Author and artist Jessica Hagy had what TIME called one of the best blogs on the internet in 2008. Her blog, Indexed, started as a place for her to publish her doodles, like this one: 

Once she started publishing, however, it turned into so much more. 

Since then, she’s amassed millions of views, published two books, and has her work consistently published in Forbes, The New York Times, and The Huffington Post, among others. I asked her about the nature of this kind of success recently on my podcast...

“People really liked it, and it bounced all around the internet. The serendipity of it all is not something I can take credit for, but it’s something I’m grateful for."

In reality, it wasn’t serendipity at all. Hagy’s blogging output was unique, different, and in great contrast to everything else being shared.


The other mechanism of The Automaticity Trigger responsible for capturing our immediate attention involves our capacity to identify a mental association – or lack thereof – when faced with information. 

You noticed – and remembered – Jim Carrey in the exercise above because you didn’t associate him with the other items on the list. He was different. He stood out. 

You notice someone who’s wearing the same tie as you at a conference. Why? Association. 

Conversely, you also notice the one guy who’s wearing red sneakers at the same conference. Why? Association (lack thereof.) 

This means there are really only two ways to capture someone’s immediate attention: by providing context personal to them, or by being so completely unique that you stick out like a sore thumb. 

Following a formula, template, or what everyone else is doing (or has always done) is the fast track to obscurity. 

To get a closer look at association in practice, let’s examine Netflix. 

Netflix has innovated the video rental space not once, but twice. 

The first time came when companies like Blockbuster and other regional video rental companies dominated the space. EVERYONE rented movies in three-day increments by making a trip to the store hopefully to find the movies that they wanted were still available. 

Then Netflix put on a pear of bright red sneakers and said, “hey, we’re different.” 

They first had the whole mail-in model, where subscribers had the movies of their choosing mailed to them. I remember vividly the shock value this incited in people. 

"You mean to tell me I can order a movie, and it'll be in my mailbox in several days?!" 

It seems archaic now, but at the time, stuck out like a sore thumb. For reference, a regional video rental store, Hollywood Video, opened in many locations statewide to minimal fanfare around the same time and has since closed all of its stores. 

Netflix, meanwhile, has become a verb. 

They were the first to go digital and offer its library online and on demand. You didn’t even have to change out of your pajamas or wipe that ice cream stain from your shirt. 

"You haven't seen Mad Men? Go home and Netflix that this weekend!"

Had Netflix decided simply to open another chain of stores, they'd most likely have ended up like Blockbuster: just a memory.

Now what?

There are many factors that affect contrast and association. 

They can be as expansive as business models, like in the case of Netflix, or seemingly as small and innocent as color, as in the case of cereal brands on a store shelf. 

The important thing to remember here is not the examples themselves, but how these examples can be transposed to your business. 

You can start by nixing the following sentence from every. single. meeting you ever have: "What is [insert competitor here] doing?" 

Contrast and association have one thing in common: uniqueness. Either in how personal something feels or in how radically different it is. 

Nothing else is worth remembering. 

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