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When someone lands on your website or opens your direct mail asset, you have about three seconds to capture their attention – we call it the 3SR (three second rule).

But here’s the thing – how much can you read in three seconds? Not much at all. A few words at most.

So in order to capture someone’s attention in three seconds you can’t do it with words. In fact, you can’t appeal to their System 2 brain. It’s too slow. You can only appeal to System 1 – which means appealing to the emotional, subconscious centres of the brain. You need to combine images, design and maybe a few words.

In three seconds, a visitor will make a gut decision – “yeah okay this is worth investing a few more seconds reading” or “nope, this isn’t interesting”.

Look as I’ve said here before – PEOPLE ARE REALLY, REALLY BUSY. They already have a task list a mile long that they won’t get to today – so for your message to get their attention you are competing with everything else they could be doing for the next couple of minutes – including checking Facebook, looking at something on YouTube or making a coffee.

The Nielsen Norman Group says your site will get 10 – 20 seconds before people make a decision to stay or leave, but I think that’s only if you pass the 3SR in the first place. They seem to confirm this when they say:

The probability of leaving is very high during these first few seconds because users are extremely skeptical, having suffered countless poorly designed Web pages in the past. People know that most Web pages are useless, and they behave accordingly to avoid wasting more time than absolutely necessary on bad pages.

If the Web page survives this first — extremely harsh — 10-second judgment, users will look around a bit. However, they’re still highly likely to leave during the subsequent 20 seconds of their visit. Only after people have stayed on a page for about 30 seconds does the curve become relatively flat. People continue to leave every second, but at a much slower rate than during the first 30 seconds.

Now – try this experiment. Open your website or pick up the latest piece of marketing you created. Look at it for three seconds. What message does it convey? How much are you trying to increase their cognitive load? Be honest. Be hard on yourself. No prizes for bullshitting ourselves. Does your marketing pass the 3SR?