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Idea: Help Your Customers Find Focus in the Age of Distraction

Just in time for March Madness, Upshot, the number nerds at NYTimes.com, ranked home-team basketball fans for their effectiveness in distracting the attention of free-throw shooters from visiting teams. With their “Curtain of Distraction” that makes each free-throw attempt an occasion for revealing newer and zanier antics, Arizona State University (ASU) students rank No. 1 in causing visiting team shooters to be distracted; opposing players score about 1.7 points less at the ASU free-throw line than they do at home. 

These days, as we live more and more of our lives through screens powered by technology that allow us unlimited ways to interact with people and organizations, access unending information and engage in any number of financial transactions, it seems we are constantly being coaxed to see what’s behind endless Curtains of Distractions instead of concentrating on how to sink the free throw in front of us.

While competing for customer attention is one of the assigned goals of most marketers, we (the entire tribe of marketers) can mistranslate that assignment to mean that our goal is to distract customers from whatever they are doing rather than to help them accomplish the task at hand.

Trade media for marketing professionals, especially those that cover tech-oriented new media that is delivered via screens, often seem like a running account of the most recent effort by a brand to find a way to get people to stop what they are doing and transfer their focus to a newer, shinier distraction.

Lesson for Marketers: Our job is to help people score free throws. When we are the customers, we hate the efforts by marketers to insert distractions in front of us when we’re at the free-throw lines of our life and work. We have words for such distractions: Spam, for example, or often more subtle methods. But as marketers, we can somehow convince ourselves that our jobs are to compete with other marketers to be ranked, like ASU fans, as the best attention-distractor.

But here’s the rest of the story: Keeping the other team from scoring 1.7 points per game is a marketing metric, not a business goal. Providing help to actual players on the court so they can score more points is a business goal. Distracting players from 1.7 points per game got ASU students featured in a New York Times article, but it didn’t get the ASU basketball team into this year’s NCAA tournament. Ending their season with a 17-15 win-loss record, ASU barely made it into the NIT (the “not invited tournament,” as some people call it) where, 2,500 miles away from any home-court distraction advantage, they defeated the University of Connecticut 68-61 in a first-round game last night.

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