How brands can earn attention in our digital world

by Nigel Hollis | October 24, 2018

I am always amazed at the power of a good meme, but the idea that humans have an attention span shorter than a goldfish has had a disastrous effect on the advertising industry. Worse, it now appears that there is no real evidence to back up the original claim.

As you probably know the claim that the average human attention span was now eight seconds, shorter than that of a goldfish, first hit the headlines in 2015. Since then it has spawned a huge number of headlines and quotes, like,

“Humans have shorter attention than goldfish, thanks to smartphones”.

Only recently has the tide turned and articles have started to appear in the BBC and from Faris Yakob on WARC asserting that there is no proof to the claim. For instance, Professor Michael Posner, Institute of Neuroscience, University of Oregon, is quoted as stating,

“There is no real evidence that (the human attention span) has changed since it was first reported in the late 1800s.”


Human attention varies dramatically from task to task. With a bit of luck, you may still be paying attention by the time you finish reading this post. As far as science is concerned, ‘attention span’ is a colloquial term that encompasses several functions, including sustained, select, and alternating attention. And as for goldfish, there is no evidence that they suffer from a lack of attention either.

But here is the real problem. The goldfish myth, along with a misinterpretation of the convenience metrics generated by digital advertising, has led sites and marketers to try to compress content into shorter and shorter sound bites. Yes, it is true that the majority of people stop watching an online video after five seconds, but this is not an attention problem; it is a relevance and interest problem. The solution is not shorter videos; the solution is creating engaging content with which people want to spend time.

Evidence that engagement is the issue, not attention, can be found in the reports created by Ooyala, whose Q1 2018 Global Video Index  finds that more time is spent watching long-form content (defined as over 20 minutes) on digital devices than short-form content. Yes, even smartphones. It is all a matter of how interested people are in the content.

Now, your brand may not have the budget to produce The Crown but as big budget flops continue to prove, money is not everything. Brands must earn attention with remarkable, inspirational or useful content. They must also adapt to the environment in which the content will be seen. For instance, when viewers are in a skippable pre-roll environment, like YouTube, they want to be entertained. Most people skip after the first five seconds but if you engage your audience right from the start, you are much more likely to keep their attention for longer.

Are you still paying attention? If so, please share your thoughts.