Of Advertising Spend and How To Find Your Early Users

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Of Advertising Spend and How To Find Your Early Users

[Editorial Notes : Guest article by Sai Gaddam, a computational neuroscientist.]

So you have built a better cheaper mousetrap, or a cleaner greener electric car, or maybe a website to reconnect long-lost friends from college. Now what? You need users. How do you now find users beyond your immediate circle of friends and recipients of your mother’s enthusiastic calls? You must advertise to let strangers know you exist. And then these strangers must recall that you, in fact, exist and have a potentially interesting solution to offer.

This is actually a problem every business on the planet faces, but as a bootstrapped Ramen-fueled startup you don’t have the marketing budget to go the conventional route. You must spend frugally and wisely, and know what advertisements work — and which ones are simply a drain on your already minuscule bank account. You can do a better job at that if you understand the universal and under-appreciated currency of attention.

The Currency Of Attention

Every user you will ever have is born in those momentous few seconds they encounter your product for the first time, and you grabbed their attention for just enough time to plant that seed of recall. All advertising hinges on this fact. Recall, Retention, Focus: these are all essentially synonyms for this precious currency. So shouldn’t we understand how we pay attention?

Here’s a little task for you. Watch this short two-minute video and count the number of times players wearing white pass the ball to each other. You may watch this on mute, but if possible do listen to it.

Recent psychology research is bearing out the fact that we actually suck at remembering. In fact, our brains actively ignore most of the world around us. And this is a good thing. You don’t want to be paying attention to traffic on the opposite side of the road, nor do you want to remember the pattern of flooring in every house you have ever visited.Selective attention is what allows us to operate well in a world full of irrelevant distractions and experiences.

But this really sucks for your advertisement. Your ad is that guy in a Gorilla suit desperately flailing his arms for attention. This is all the more true on the web. Eye tracking studies like the one pictured below show that many of us are essentially blind to ads and hardly look at them. They fade into background noise, like the flooring in your friend’s apartment you visited last week.


Why do they fade into the background? Our brains are quite attentive and vigilant when they enter new environments, whether that be places in the real world or sites on the world wide web. Soon, however, we start learning where the useful information is spatially, and where the irrelevant information is. Ads then punish themselves further by having completely unrelated stimuli share the same space. An unfortunate example of this in action showed up on my facebook page recently.


When I see Mangalsutras and Manforce appear together, my brain learns to ignore that spatial location. “Nothing useful is showing up there”, it silently tells me and nudges me away. There’s a wonderful saying in Telugu that if you are drinking milk under a palm tree, people will assume you are tanking up on toddy. You are known by the company you keep and the places you hang out at, and this unfortunately true for ads as well.

Where And When Matter

Does this mean all web advertising is near-invisible. No. Facebook, surprisingly, is leading the way in making ads relevant again. In running campaigns for MakkhiChoose, I noticed that some ads were an incredible 80 times more successful in driving users and installations. That’s not 80% but 8000%! These are what Facebook terms newsfeed ads. Rolled out in March this year, their amazing performance is being noticed and reflected in their stock price.

The reason these newsfeed ads work well for facebook – and will work even better for you – is an ingenious psychological hack. Facebook has conditioned us over the last couple of years to expect and focus on bite-sized stories in the form of updates. Conventional stories, like the ones you see on news sites or any of the other websites you visit are single servings that often take up the entire page or multiple pages. An ad, in these cases, is an intrusion. On Facebook, thanks to our excellent conditioning, it just another short story you reflexively pay attention to. Simple yet brilliant.

(Quick digression: All effective advertising is storytelling. The best how-to book on storytelling I have ever read is a book about screenplays. Read it.)

So does this mean you, the bootstrapped startup, must turn over you meager advertising budget to Facebook and pave their way to global domination. Not so fast. Facebook is not the only place your users ever visit, and besides the ad rates there will quickly rise to reflect their better quality. Your users are engaged in many other website, and perhaps even physical locations. Reach out to them there in an engaging way that makes sense, and is part of the context. Pay attention to what your potential users pay attention to. Or your startup will end up being that helpless arm-flailing Gorilla.

[Sai Gaddam is a computational neuroscientist and an alumnus of IIT Madras. He is the co-author of A Billion Wicked Thoughts, an internationally acclaimed book about desire. He believes understanding how our brains tick is the way to truly discovering and liberating ourselves. Sai is currently working on a startup with the broad ambition of making the consumption of content intelligent. MakkhiChoose is part of that initiative.]

Do read his earlier article : Forget A/B Testing. Do M/F Testing [Designing User Interfaces for Different Genders]

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