The attention span myth and why it’s problematic for marketers

Estimated reading time
5 minutes
25th February 2021
Author: Natasha Keary
Posted in: Content Production

There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about attention spans. The New York Times, Time magazine, and USA today have all reported that a human’s attention span is only eight seconds long – one second shorter than the attention span of your average goldfish. 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. Alongside the existing pressures to create high-quality content on a tight budget, marketers must work out how to condense their core messaging down into eight-second bites to fit goldfish-level spans. This has recently fuelled the snackable content trend, where marketers are creating short, scannable bites of content with clickbaity titles to keep reading time minimal. The problem is that relying only on snackable content tends to sacrifice content quality. This leaves behind in-depth, immersive experiences to pursue quick wins. 

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

goldfish bowl with flowers - attention span of a goldfish

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, chaining podcast episodes, 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:

  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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 child 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, 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. 

What this means for marketers

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. 

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 and can help to boost our selective attention. 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 10-fold. Essentially, the less goldfish-friendly you can make your content, the better.

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