A set of startling figures hit the news recently, fuelling the fire of millennial-bashing. Apparently, the human attention span is on the decline.
The set of figures chosen to back this up are that the average human attention span is down from 12 seconds in the year 2000, to just 8, less than the attention span of a goldfish.
In isolation these figures make for interesting, even worrying reading. However, someone’s not checked their facts.
The numbers used supposedly came from a study conducted by Microsoft in Canada, however as it turns out these specific numbers aren’t to be found in Microsoft’s study. Upon investigation, the BBC found that these figures actually came from another source called Statistic Brain, which at first glance would look legitimate.
Their listed sources (the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the US National Library of Medicine, and the Associated Press) were unable to find any record of the research which supposedly backed-up Statistic Brain’s figures.
In addition to this, the BBC’s efforts to contact Statistic Brain came to nothing. From the start, the basis for this decline in attention span is, at best, weak.
In reality, human attention spans aren’t that simple. Dr. Gemma Briggs of the Open University debunked the figures, noting that human attention spans are task-dependent, so the notion that we can produce a generalised figure is nonsense.
Just to pour salt in the wounds of those that were taken in by the figures, it’s also been proved time and time again that goldfish don’t suffer from short attention spans or memory loss.
Researchers at Princeton University and the University of California-Berkley conducted a study into varying attention spans in monkeys and humans. The analogy they used to describe their findings is something like this: “The brain is like a theatre with a spotlight and house-lights, and it cycles between spotlight mode (attention focused on a single point on the stage), and house-light mode (attention diffused over the audience).”
They were able to deduce that this flickering attention span is not only natural but healthy. In evolutionary terms, focusing solely on one task for too long leaves you open to being eaten by something. Flitting your attention between one main task and your surroundings tends to help you see the lion sneaking up on you a little better.
Shortening marketing content
Despite the figures that got everyone so worked up being an act of … inventive research, there is a trend in marketing circles towards shorter and shorter content.
There are two ways to approach this: either the figures are right after all and attention spans are becoming shorter – leading to shorter marketing content, or the shorter content is a response to a changing marketing paradigm which relies more and more on the web.
If we work on the pretty safe assumption that the figures are rubbish, then that leaves us with the second option, that shorter content is a response to changing marketing platforms.
Strangely, in the process of attempting to prove that marketing content was shortening due to shrinking attention spans, HuffPost actually helped to prove the flipside of the argument.
They made the point that the new mode of 6-second ad content is nearly always produced alongside its longer counterparts, as a subsection almost.
This indicates that the differing lengths of content are being used to adapt and tailor the marketing towards differing platforms, not that one is replacing the other.
Attention spans and marketing
Despite all this debunking, there are a few rules that can be applied to marketing with regards to attention spans.
Applying the concept that attention is task-dependent, different people will have different attention spans for different content.
If you’re writing content for a well-informed, niche audience then long, detailed copy is likely to be your friend. However, the reverse is also true, for a wider, less-informed audience, where shorter, more generalised copy will likely yield better results.
The point here is that it’s more important to know your audience than to try and create content that fits our supposed goldfish-like attention spans.
In general terms things such as ensuring your website loads fast and is easy to navigate, with all the relevant information is important. This is because people won’t hang around waiting for a site to load when they don’t even know for sure that it’ll be worth their time.
Again, proving the task-dependent element i.e people’s attention span for watching a circle go round and round is likely to be universally short.
There are lessons to be learned here with regards to ensuring your marketing strategy is tailored to your audience, and reducing waiting times in areas where people are likely to have short attention spans – loading times, tedious ads when they just want to watch something.
However, the prevalent myth that millennials or even humans in general are experiencing a decline in attention span is not likely to lead to anything other than a reduction in the quality of marketing content.