8 seconds.

That’s plenty of time, right? That was so last century. Try 2.5 seconds. That’s roughly the time you now have to capture the attention of your reader. Oh wait. Come back. I’m not done yet. Wait. What? I’ve already lost you? 2.5 seconds. Gone before you know it.

In today’s world, 2.5 seconds (give or take .1 or .2 seconds) is not long enough to deliver a successful message in which you not only grab the reader, but keep them on the page long enough to deliver your message. What if the image you chose doesn’t speak to the reader? What if the colors in the layout don’t work? Did you lose them before you even had a chance to grab their attention? Most likely, yes. Time is too valuable to give away, so the message has to be powerful enough to grab people’s attention. How do you do that? How can you be successful at what you’re trying to do when time and attention spans get shorter and shorter?

I know, you need a gimmick! Something that will make the reader stand up and take notice of your creative brilliance. Something so awesome and powerful that it not only gets the attention of the reader, but it wins creative accolades from every design-related award program known to man. That will do it. Problem solved.

Not quite. The problem still exists. While gimmicks can help generate chit-chat around the water cooler, it’s usually not the best solution for most marketing efforts. We live in the real world, where our audience is saturated with status updates, gimmicks, text messages, Instragram doozies, Internet sensations, work, the daily blogs that we can’t live without (the SMC blog for one!) and if there’s time, going old-school and cracking open a magazine or two. Being a designer, I’m more than aware of the conflicts and trials a client faces when trying to create marketing materials that do what they are supposed to. And while we all feel that more is better, it’s not always true. If you deliver all the goods up front, how will you ever get that inquiry that prompts your audience to make contact with an actual human being?

So what can you do? Here are my thoughts on how to get your message across, engage the reader and keep them from leaving your space in 2.5 seconds:

1. Keep your message clear and to the point.

When writing your headline realize that if you can’t get your message across quickly, you won’t get it across at all. Got milk? Of course you do. We all do. And it’s because of those two simple words that we continue to. Short, to the point, and gets the message across. Granted, it’s been cited so many times as excellence in messaging, that I really don’t want milk anymore, but it did what it needed to do to get the job done. So how do you do it? What can you say about your product or service that would keep the message simple, yet catchy? Spend the time to brainstorm. Relate as many key words to your goal or message as possible, and then begin to formulate your succinct, attention-getting headline. Write enough to tease the reader to want more, but don’t give them the pay-off too soon.

2. Find one image that will support the message.

Too many images muddy the message. One strong, powerful image, is more significant than 3-5 photos-or more! Another case where more is not better. The photos can be the best photographic images around, but if there are too many, you will miss the one that should have the most impact. Pay for the difference, and hire a quality photographer. Invest in your investment. That’s what marketing collateral is—an investment. It doesn’t have to be photography at it’s creative best. It just has to be good photography. Not from a smart phone, or your brother’s best friend who dabbles in photography. If you do need to have more than one photo, keep it to a minimum, and remember to always work in odds (more on that in a sec.).

3. Work with odds

How’s that for quick? And it was shorter than 2.5 seconds to give you the payoff.  Working with odd numbers of elements has always been a trick of the designer’s trade. Simply put, focus on the use of threes and odd numbers.  The basic idea of the rule is that details and objects that are arranged or grouped in odd numbers are more appealing, memorable, and effective than even-numbered pairings. While it is easier to create symmetry by balancing elements in twos, odd numbers create harmony and force movement and visual interest. Simply put, it helps the elements on the page rest, and not work too hard to grab the reader’s attention and keep it.

4. Keep the number of fonts you use to three.

Three. Isn’t that an odd number? Why yes, yes it is. Three fonts support the rule of odds and keep the layout from becoming disjointed. Fonts are the thread that guide the reader through the message. When fonts continuously change, there’s a lack of consistency that can often confuse the reader as to where to go next. This is not just true for ads, but brochures as well. It is so important to use unifying elements that guide the reader through the blocks of copy, or pages of copy, to the final payoff.

4.5 Try to limit the use of trendy fonts.

Some marketing materials have a shorter shelf life, where trendy, dime-a-dozen fonts have their time and place. If you’re looking for something to last longer than a 6-week period (it used to be 6 months back in the day, but again, so last century), then try using fonts for either their casual or conservative appeal that are tried and true (serif or san-serif), and that would also be based on your target audience. You’ll get more shelf life from these fonts, allowing your project to maintain a current feel even if it’s used for a long period of time (which is great when working on a tight budget).

5. Don’t let your personal preference rule the use of color.

Color in design has some very specific, psychological connections to it. There have been many studies done over the years that suggest color is directly related to moods (such as blue equaling sadness or depression;  red eliciting heat or aggression), or that the socio-economic status of a person or group suggests which color should be used from either the primary, secondary or tertiary palette. These studies have their value and meaning, but also their exceptions.  The one exception that shouldn’t take place in design when using color is the reason I have heard all too many times … “I just don’t like that color”. Everyone has opinions, and everyone is entitled to them, but not when it comes to color in marketing. Color should be based on your target audience’s preference (so they’ll relate), as well as for building both brand awareness and consistency from piece to piece. I once went through 6 rounds of revisions on an environmental piece using varying shades of green (obvious choice?) before the Marketing Director finally confessed she hated green (that  would that have been nice to know 5 revisions earlier). She couldn’t see past her personal diversion to a color to understand if the piece was or wasn’t working otherwise. And unless it’s needed, try to limit your color palette to three (continuing to support the theory of odds).

6. Limit your body copy to three-to-five sentences.

The theory of odds strikes back. If you feel you need more than 3-5 sentences, consider fine-tuning your message, you may be trying to say more than you need to. That’s all I’m going to say about that (See? Nice and short and to the point).

So, 2.5 seconds. Can you do it? Definitely. Spend some time up front. Don’t just jump in. Research and think about what you’re trying to achieve. Solidify your goals and know your market. Take a look around and see what your competitors are doing. And stick to the odds. You’ll come out a winner every time.