How to Captivate and Hold Attention in the Age of the Stream

Imagine for a moment that you're standing on an overpass high above a busy L.A. freeway like the 405 or the 5. It doesn't really matter which. Pick one.

In a span of a few minutes literally thousands of cars will speed buy. Some will be loud. Others quiet. Some will be notable, but most won't.

At the end of the experiment, if I were to ask you to recall ten cars and trucks and what was memorable about them, I guarantee that you would be hard pressed to do so. What's more, none of the cars would have been "repeat impressions." You saw each car only once, and likely not every vehicle on the highway. That's precisely the same challenge that marketers face in the "age of the stream."

Consumers are spending a record amount of time on social networks. The two leaders are Facebook and Twitter. As both race to add features, they are increasingly adopting the same style of presenting information—an endless stream of brief but captivating status updates.

So far, attention-starved consumers by all indicators are eating it up. As a society we're becoming addicted to the infinite pipeline of status updates, short videos, and photos produced by our friends.

Unfortunately, the time to consume this endless buffet of updates (many mundane, some meaningful) has to come from somewhere. And often it's from traditional media, which favors quality and reflection over brevity. They're taking it on the chin. And it's the stream, arguably, that is contributing to the decreasing traffic to mainstream newspaper sites.

All of this poses a challenge to marketers. The media is where, as marketers, we generally play ball. How can we break through when life is nothing but a stream, and ad pages and feature placements become scarcer (and arguably captivate less attention)?

The short answer is to be ubiquitous. To do so brands must not only participate in all of the key social spaces, but also engage all day and night in a way that builds relationships. The community must feel like you care more about them than yourself. That's the easiest way in an endless stream to make an impression today.

Read more of the Edelman blog on Fast Company.

Steve RubelSteve Rubel is SVP, Director of Insights for Edelman Digital, a division of Edelman, the world's largest independent PR firm. He studies global technology, media and online trends and shapes them into actionable insights and marketing communications strategies. He also has his own lifestream.

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  • Michelle Chun-Hoon

    I liked the comparison of the LA highway to advertisements today- the cars/advertisements are everywhere, yet hardly remembered. Good advice on how to treat customers in this “age of the stream”.

  • Colin Henderson

    One of the reasons that bridging the chasm is hard is that marketing in the traditional sense is the wrong tool imho. When people are conversing in social networks that is personal time, and personal time cannot be broken with traditional interruptive marketing. An earlier comment from Charles mentions customer service. If we take a corporate view, marketing tends to be separated from customer service. Marketing have the job of 'driving' customers in, and customer service (call centres, branches) handle the result. Customer service have operational accountability for ongoing service and relationships.

    Perhaps the notion that social networks are social 'media' is confusing marketers. Its time for customer service to engage here. Customer service personnel take the long view and are more likely to become ubiquitous that campaign driven makreting.

  • Michael Lum

    @Chad Maybe I'm just playing with semantics, but I would contend that customer service IS a relationship. If the customer wants companies to treat them well when there are issues, the only way for that to happen is for a relationship to exist. Maybe a more accurate way of putting it is that the customer wants to be listened to. In an age where we are increasingly expecting to be co-creators of content, the burden is on companies more than ever before to be sensitive to consumer needs, and satisfy them.

  • Chad Albert

    The key is simple. Be interesting. Or to put it into business speak, provide a compelling value to the consumer. Really, it means that the world is over marketed, and over advertised. The current ways many companies build products is boring, and the marketing behind them is boring. Detroit for the most part builds boring cars, now they're bankrupt. Putting bilions of dollars into advertising, branding, and keeping a variety of brands alive proves that branding and marketing without substance is doomed to failure.
    In many ways, the streams of today are an answer to ubiquitous marketing. When companies actually treat customers well, and truly regard customers as valuable, then the process of building relationships can begin. A one sided relationship is folly, and a waste of time. People don;t want relationships, we want the products we buy to work, and the companies we deal with to treat us well when there are issues. Teaching companies to actually solve the issues customers need solved is the only relationship we need. The comcast cares guy on twitter is a great example. Why not solve customers issues before they start screaming at comcast on twitter? It's always better to prevent the fire than have a fireman running around.