Hacking Customer Attention: 11 Winning Neuroscience Tips

Written by Simon Jack (guest contributor)

No matter how different and independently minded each of us is, there’s something we all have in common. That’s the way our brains have evolved and developed. Throughout our evolutionary history, certain thought patterns and responses have developed to ensure we carry out tasks in the most efficient and productive way. These responses keep us safe from harm and ensure we capitalise on opportunities. Neuroscience is the study of such brain patterns.

By understanding the built in ways our brains respond, we can start to ‘hack’ into the way people pick out information and make decisions.

So here are 11 neuroscience principles to get inside your customer’s brain and command their attention.

  1. Primary and Recency Effects

When we’re given a series of information, it’s far easier for us to recall the first thing and the last thing we see. These start and stop points punctuate our information intake, making it easier for our brain to stick a mental bookmark in these positions. What comes in the middle is not so easy to pick out as it merges into the whole experience.

When it comes to communication, you can use primary and recency effects to place the most important take home information at the start and the end. Don’t run the risk of your message getting forgotten in the middle.

To that effect, we’ve saved the one tip we want you to remember most until last!

  1. Originality

Ever wondered how it is we can recall all the details of crazy stories that happened years ago but not the everyday things that happened recently? In neuroscience, this is known as salience. Our attention is drawn to what is novel.

The films we find boring are the ones that are predictable. The experiences we love are the ones where we got to try something different and unusual. If you’re anything like me, you’ve eaten a lot of ice cream in your life. However, the ice cream that stands out the most in my memory is balsamic vinegar ice cream. It seemed so unusual when making it but it was surprisingly tasty. Here’s a recipe for you if you want to give it a go. It goes down a treat with strawberries. 

The same applies to customer communications. Predictable and cliche approaches will start to get tuned out because they’ve been seen and heard before and the brain assigns lesser importance to them. However, by striving to always add an original element, you can stand out in time against your competitors.

  1. Simplicity

It’s a very simple truth that the brain prefers to think about things that are easy to think about. This is known as cognitive fluency. As soon as any complexity is added, it’s harder for the brain to process. When faced with multiple objectives, this is distracting and it becomes harder to focus on what’s important.

The average brain is able to store between 5-9 chunks of information within in the short term. This is known as working memory. Too many chunks can cause the loss of focus and impair decision making. Paradoxically, we often try and put across a lot of information to ensure our customers have all the information they need. In actual fact, customers are better assisted by ensuring communicators are concise so they never overload the working memory beyond capacity.

Tip: When creating content four key pieces of insights is a good rule to keep your message clear and under control.

  1. Contrast

We are naturally primed to spot things that stand out. From an evolutionary perspective, we are drawn to colourful fruits that want to be eaten and warned by colourful animals that really don’t. It’s the contrast of colour against backgrounds that draw our focus and guide our decisions. Of course, the converse is camouflage, where things slip by unnoticed.

Just look how Apple used contrast in their classic ipod ads...


Contrast to communication is what the shiny object is to a magpie. If a main point is to be taken in, it must stick out in relation to its surrounding information and be given plenty of space to shine through. That’s space in time as well as physical space. For important points to really sink in, the subconscious mind needs time to digest them before being surpassed and overloaded with new information.

  1. Visual Associations

Our brain makes sense of things through visuals. We don’t dream in text and numbers, we dream in pictures. If you think about it, written language is really just visual pattern recognition anyway.

Much of our memory is associative through visuals. That’s where the power of mental associations exists. People won’t remember a chunk of text. It therefore stands to reason that if you want to leave people with a lasting impression, provide a strong, unique visual experience that can easily be recalled.

Tip: This is why infographics are so popular, it allows the brain to literally imagine the benefits vs plain text. Here’s an example I made for a cloud telecoms company. Instead of a list of benefits, the viewer can follow the journey and associate it with their own situation.


  1. Relevancy

Our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions. Personal experiences are more easily recalled than incidents that happened to others. This is known as an availability bias. We remember own actions better than we remember others.

Taking on board new information can often be seen as a chore if not by choice. This is because it can feel like filling your head with knowledge without really knowing the reason why. We have no reason to be fond of something when we don’t understand its purpose. This is called an affect heuristic (a mental shortcut), where the degree of attention given is based on whether something is liked or disliked.

The secret to getting people to care about something is to ensure they are able to frame it in such a way that puts them in the picture and has some sort of implication to their own life. A simple trick to achieve this is to always ask the question, ‘so what?’ ‘So what’ forces you to dig down and find the reason something relates to an individual beyond superficial understanding from descriptions or statistics alone. Personal relevancy is the fuel for motivation.

Tip: Add ‘so what?’ to your process. It’s really simple but really effective as a way to measure the impact and taking the emotional attachment you have away from the situation. If you can’t see the ‘so what?’ then rethink or replace.

  1. Analogy

We deal with almost everything that happens to us by comparing ongoing events with past experiences. We don’t always know we’re doing this as it mostly occurs in our subconscious. When something new comes along, we look for this past reference to make sense of it.

That’s the beauty of analogy. Analogous situations provide a situation that we already recognise. They make the strange familiar. It’s a wonderful shortcut for getting your message across, as you just need to associate with already well-established knowledge. Tough topics become far easier to grasp once you can draw parallels with familiar situations.

Tip: Check out this extract from an article Martin wrote to help people realise that generations being treated differently is not a new thing:

Which decade do you think this was said in?

'The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.'

You have an answer?

The most common answers I’ve heard are 1950’s and 1920’s...

It was Socrates who said this, roughly 439-469 B.C.

It’s has been a generational cycle for a while :)

  1. Repetition

We often decide the relative importance of issues by how easily they are retrieved from memory. More frequently mentioned topics persist in are memory and bubble up to the surface much more readily.

This is known as the familiarity principle. It causes us to feel more positively about things we are more frequently or consistently exposed to. Ever had a song that you didn’t like at first but has since ‘grown on you’? That’s the reason. It’s a very simple principle to bring into your communications; the more vital a particular message is to get across, the more often you should bring it up in communications.

The song ‘Hey Ya!’ by OutKast is a huge hit. But it didn’t start off that way. People had a hard time accepting this quirky song amongst their usual music preferences and would turn off their radios. The strategy used by the record company was to repeat the song often enough but also alongside classic hits that everyone loved. The repetition of the song and the familiarity alongside favourite hits was the reason the song took off. 


  1. Involvement

If you’ve ever built your own flat-pack furniture, you’ll know the effort it takes to cobble it together then the reward you feel when it’s stood in pride of place. This is called the Ikea effect. The more effort we put into an activity, the more we value it.

When it comes to the customer attention and engagement, this is the power of involvement. Passive information is less effective than when someone has a chance to take part themselves. This is where interactive content and customer generated content really come into their own. Even small scale activities such as quizzes and photo contests can boost this sense of achievement and create a stronger connection with your brand.


An example by Elvis Jesus, pulling in music icons and making a game of one of their clothing collections > check it out

  1. Positivity

Positivity puts us in a better frame of mind. It’s called a mood heuristic, whereby a better mood increases our enjoyment and satisfaction level. The more we enjoy information, the more we want to learn.

Quite often it’s very tempting to try and convince customers on why they need your solution based on what is currently bad or wrong. This is placing a negative spin on the situation and is potentially mood-hoovering them. Instead try and reframe any negatives into positives. Focus on the benefits of what could be and you’ll be dealing with happier, more receptive customers.

Take a look at how Persil superbly reframe a negative into a positive...


  1. Storytelling

Ever seen a child uninterested in a toy until another child starts playing with it? Then all of a sudden they are desperate to have it. This is called mimetic desire, which simply means, we want what others have. We are more likely to do something when we see someone else do it first.

That is the real secret of storytelling to influence behaviour. We see an action taking place and we want to put ourselves in the picture. Instead of dry information, a story narrative pulls us in an enables us to identify with the situation. The stronger the story, the more importance we attach to the subject. We also become more confident when the story comes easily to mind. All that adds up to a powerful experience that really connects us to the message and leaves us with a desire to take part for real.

Now over to you. How you currently weaving these principles into your communications? Where else could you tap into the ways customers think and further influence their decisions?