Attention marketing, the attention span myth and what it all means for marketers

Estimated reading time
6 minutes
25th January 2021
Author: Natasha Keary
Posted in: Content Production

With many conflicting reports about people’s attention spans being equivalent to that of a goldfish, it’s easy to feel uncertain about what direction to take your marketing in.

The New York TimesTime magazine, and USA today have all reported that a human’s attention span is only eight seconds long. Forbes reported that attention depends on generation, with Millennials able to focus for a whole four seconds longer than Gen Z. Meanwhile, the BBC argues it’s difficult to put a figure on attention span at all since focus varies so much depending on the task and context.

This confusion causes a lot of marketing problems. This myth has recently fuelled the snackable content trend, where marketers are creating short, instantly-digestible bites of content with clickbait titles to keep reading time minimal. The problem is that relying only on snackable content tends to sacrifice content quality and audience retention. This leaves behind in-depth, immersive experiences to pursue quick wins.

Luckily, there’s more to measuring attention span than it first may seem. Let’s take a look at why the eight-second myth doesn’t measure up, how to overcome one of the most common problems with attention marketing, and ultimately why readers are actually not at all like goldfish.

What is attention marketing?

Attention marketing prioritises retaining your audience’s attention above all other metrics, focusing on acquiring and retaining that attention through effective but non-invasive advertising. Capturing your audience’s attention is the outcome all marketing teams are striving for.

Debunking the goldfish myth 

If you haven’t heard the “humans have a shorter attention span than a goldfish” idiom from a well-reputed news outlet, you’ve probably heard it from a marketing or sales colleague. When Microsoft’s Consumer Insights team reported that the average human’s attention span lags one second behind a goldfish’s, they hit the headlines worldwide. However, it wasn’t long before the statement started to look fishy. 

The claim that humans have an eight-second attention span and goldfish a nine-second span wasn’t based on Microsoft’s research but cited from another source. As reported by the BBC, this source wasn’t linked to any recognizable studies or research pieces. Scientists and psychologists are still puzzled by how the statistic came into circulation. 

Aside from dubious sources, the goldfish attention span myth has one significant counter-argument to contend with: bingeing. Watching an entire series in one sitting, listening to podcast episodes back to back to back, and powering through a whole book in one afternoon are all everyday habits – especially during a pandemic. A Netflix survey found 61 percent of users regularly watched between two and six episodes in one sitting. The majority preferred bingeing their way through a series to taking it one episode at a time. In fact, 361,000 people watched the entire second series of popular drama Stranger Things on the day it was released. 

However, we’re all aware that we don’t have an unlimited bingeing capacity, hence why Netflix asks, ‘are you still watching?’ after a significant number of episodes have auto-played. As it turns out, attention span is more complex than it first seems. 

The three types of attention

Scientists discovered that attention isn’t a single process, but a group of smaller processes used in different contexts. These are:

  1. Sustained attention
    This is our ability to focus on one activity for a long period of time. Sustained attention is the type of attention you might have in business meetings, exams, or while watching a movie (or a few).
  2. Selective attention
    This is our ability to focus on one thing in particular while there are many other distractions around us. This is how we’re able to focus on a conversation with a friend at a busy train station. Selective attention is also how we can work at home while our cat/kids run around us.
  3. Divided attention
    This is the type of focus that takes place during multitasking. We’re able to split our attention between two tasks at once. This means we can take notes during a meeting or write an email while cooking lunch. We struggle to keep divided attention up for long. We are usually less productive at both things when we try to do them simultaneously.

Each type of attention applies to different circumstances, and the span of each varies from person to person. The important thing to note is that when we’re applying sustained and selective attention, we’re more likely to absorb information and make fewer mistakes. When we apply divided attention, we’re more likely to become distracted and miss out on information. 

woman working next to child - attention span of children is often short

The truth about the attention span

Attention spans are changing, but this isn’t because we’re getting worse at focusing. Instead, our digital environment is making it harder for us to apply the most effective kinds of attention.

A study conducted by the Technical University of Denmark found that our collective attention spans are decreasing due to the huge amount of information presented to us at all times. Social media in particular shows how this has changed with the most popular social media platform today being TikTok which focuses on videos under 1 minute. Following suit, Instagram brought out ‘Reels’ and YouTube introduced ‘Shorts’ to fight for the limited attention of younger viewers yet just a few years ago you’d be hard pressed to find a YouTube Content Creator making videos under 10 minutes.

Social media, 24/7 news updates, and ads are constantly competing for our attention. This means that it’s becoming harder and harder to give content our sustained or selective attention. Instead, we’re often relying on our divided attention, trying to focus on several things at once, and often failing to do so. 

How do you gain attention in marketing?

How to cater for short attention spans has long been behind many of marketing’s problems. The good news is that the answer isn’t condensing all of your content down into eight-second bitesize chunks. High-quality, immersive content is still the solution to pulling in readers and holding attention. Compared to a standard webpage, by using engaging formats such as Turtl, marketing teams can increase reader engagement by 50%.

As with Netflix series, long books, or popular podcasts, we’re able to selectively focus on something that’s interesting, relevant, and a good experience to consume. Luckily, the fact that we invest time in the things we enjoy doing (we can thank the self-determination theory for that) means that we’re still able to focus our attention for long periods of time in the right context.

The solution to attention span marketing problems is creating high-quality, immersive content. Personalization, especially at the start of your content, signposts relevance, helps to boost our selective attention and improves engagement by up to 32%. Interactivity throughout the reading experience can lead to greater sustained attention, keeping engagement high in longer pieces. Research has shown that simply switching to a more interactive format can boost reader engagement by 10-fold. Essentially, the less goldfish-friendly you can make your content, the better. 

The Turtl Takeaway: Prioritize capturing the right type of attention

While our attention spans certainly aren’t as bad as these reports suggest, attention marketing is still an essential part of modern marketing techniques, especially when it comes to first impressions. By using engaging formats like Turtl marketing teams can retain audience attention by up to 10x.

In depth analytics systems can help you understand where your attention marketing is working, whether that’s on specific platforms or with specific content. This knowledge helps you shape how your content actually affects your reader will influence  your overall marketing strategy. 

Capture attention and increase engagement with your audience, book a demo with Turtl today!

Want to find out more about the psychology behind content marketing? We’ve compiled our top tips for writing content that makes brains happy.

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