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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.