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.”

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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.

3 comments

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  1. Riekie, October 25, 2018
    You are correct.  Why should any person use own data to view ads.  If advertisers want me to watch ads they need to give something back.  I know this sounds bland but being in the industry tought me that my mobile /digital space is my private space and I dictate what I allow into it.  It is therefore that advertisers in this space need to give the consumer not only content that is relevant but also content that is personal and engaging.  I know this sounds expensive but with a few creative tweets you can create content that can be adapted to individual needs.
  2. Sanjeev Bhatt, October 24, 2018
    My take is while the cognitive capacities are unchanged, the clutter has grown exponentially. According to Roger Bohn and James Short, the GB of data delivered per person per day is 2X of 2008 level. If the engagement potential of ads does not rise by the same pace, cut-throughs will be a problem. The easy alternative for advertisers is to dial up the frequency of probable exposures of their mediocre ads. This means more dollar spend to build a 2008 equivalent level of branded engagement. Identifying windows within rising cognitive loads is a smart idea. But it is not an easy problem to crack across channels. 
  3. Ed C, October 24, 2018
    I read until the end! If the content is good, I think I pay attention. I recently watched a YouTube ad for Purple Mattress. While not in the market for a new mattress any time soon, I'll describe the ad as "remarkable" nonetheless. While I could agree our attention spans may not have changed recently, perhaps it is more a concept of content like you say. Perhaps our 1950's ancestors watched each new TV commercial as it was (given the timeline of the medium) "new and different," whereas now, we need advertising to be much more than just "there" for us to pay attention. As an analogy, many achievements in sports were once notable (50 homeruns in baseball, 10 seconds for the 100m, 5 minute miles, basketball players averaging triple doubles for the season) but those don't make headlines anymore given they are more commonplace. An 8 second 100m would get everyone's attention given its likely impossibility, just like the Cadbury Gorilla playing the drums :)

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