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Institute for Integrated Catalysis

How to Engage an Audience in an Attention-constrained World

By Corinne Drennan

science conversation
As scientists, we need to consider our entire audience and learn how to strategically, and effectively engage them. credit: Nathan Johnson | PNNL

We are exposed to nearly 10,000 communications every day (Saxon, 2017). Messages surround us: brand labels in our pantries, advertisements on TV, pop-ups on our news websites, and email blasts (even from our professional societies). But we have the power to pick and choose what to watch - and what to skip. So, it's not surprising that we retain less than 1% of the content hurled at us (Johnson, 2015).

Others are also picking their content. Constant access to information gives customers power, so engaging with our audience is now a critical part of communicating our ideas and successes. As scientists, we can contribute to our discipline and influence the global "conversation" with leadership and expertise. But it's estimated that only 3-10 people on average read any peer-reviewed journal article. How do we access additional channels for engagement?

To cut through the noise and grab someone's attention, we need to address a fatal flaw in a common approach. Then we can channel our inner 'ad-man' to strategize how to communicate a scientific discovery.

When we engage with our audience, we often try a "one size fits all" strategy. We develop an oversimplified story and send it across a multitude of channels. This approach leads to a self-perpetuating process that cognitive psychologists call the attention resource cycle. In this cycle, email blasts clutter inboxes and weak stories bombard social media, which decrease the audience's attention. Then we send more messages to improve communication, and the cycle continues.

Engaging an audience well involves marketing.

The first lesson in 'Marketing 101' is segmentation, in which we divide a potential audience into different groups based on specific attributes. Imagine we've made a development in producing ultra-pure paraxylene from renewable resources. Making this chemical precursor from renewable carbon, instead of crude oil, could allow us to produce 100% renewable commodities, like plastic bottles, and the general public should know. But 45% of Americans claim to have "no familiarity" with bioproducts (Ohio State University, 2014). Let's focus on engaging that 45%. Who are they? What are their lifestyles and values?

We need to create a profile for each sub-group, making it as real as possible: including ages, descriptions, and motivations. How do they get their news? Now we can generate a personalized, targeted message and send it through appropriate channels.

This content will teach the audience about bioproducts and hopefully entice them to learn more. As the audience engages with us, they interact with others. This helps us increase the number of people who encounter our findings.

Segmentation and targeting require effort. But we don't have to do it alone. Our communications colleagues are experts in this field. Together, we can bring our organization's engagement practices into the 21st century.

Corinne Drennan is the market sector lead for bioenergy technologies at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Her research interests include carbon management, and conversion of biomass and waste materials to fuels and chemicals.


Gartner Inc. (2012, July 30). "Gartner Says Nexus of Forces Social, Mobile Cloud and Information - Is the Basis of the Technology Platform of the Future." Retrieved October 16, 2017, from Newsroom.

Johnson, N. (2015). "The Future of Marketing: Strategies from 15 Leading Brands on How Authenticity, Relevance, and Transparency Will Help You Survive the Age of the Customer." Old Tappan, New Jersey: Paul Boger.

MacMaster, K. (2017). "The Attention Economy: Why Marketers Are Killing, Not Capturing, Attention". Retrieved October 16, 2017, from "

Ohio State University. (2014). Powering Prosperity: Bioeconomic Policy.

Saxon, J. (2017). Why Your Customers' Attention is the Scarcest Resource in 2017. Retrieved October 17, 2017, from

Time Inc. (2014, November 19). New Study by OMD UK and Time Inc. UK Reveals the Future of Families. Retrieved October 16, 2017, from

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