May I have your attention please

20th November 2016

Are we marketing to goldfish?

We’ve all heard that thanks to technology – mobile technology in particular – our attention span has fallen to 8.25 seconds, less than that of a goldfish, which is thought to be nine seconds. There even appears to be some science to prove it. But is this another truism that we’ve taken on board without challenge?

Goldfish - enamel - small

This widely quoted goldfish statistic actually originates from a 2015 Microsoft report entitled, ‘How does digital affect Canadian attention spans?’. In the survey, 2000 Canadian participants were asked about their use of mobile technology, websites, and online games. Yet, according to Jonathan Schwabish – founder of PolicyViz and a senior researcher at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC – attention span was not even tested as part of the study! Furthermore, he was not able to verify two key sources cited in the study.

In a 2015 Telegraph article, ‘Humans have shorter attention span than goldfish, thanks to smartphones’, Bruce Morton, a researcher with the University of Western Ontario’s Brain and Mind Institute, explained that humans crave information:

 ‘Just because we may be allocating our attention differently as a function of the technologies we may be using, it doesn’t mean that the way our attention actually functions has changed.’

Yet the media and many B2B marketers would have us believe that people – and our customers – no longer have any capacity to concentrate.

Just for fun, I did an online search for ‘attention span of a goldfish’. The search yielded 262,000 results, the first page of which contained articles from Time, the NY Times, the Telegraph, and the Independent, among others, including an article and infographic titled ‘How to market to goldfish’.

As marketers, we’ve been told for years that we need to create ‘bite-size’ content that’s quickly and easily digestible and shareable in order to effectively capture our customers’ attention. We continue to be told by the marketing experts that size matters and shorter is better – for example, our blogs should be a maximum of 500 words and our video 3 minutes or less.

Yet still we sit and watch a film for 2 to 3 hours; still we spend hours reading our favourite novels. We’ve even begun to hear more and more about ‘long-form content’ on the internet, content that is 2000 or more words in length. There is increasing evidence that long-form content not only gets read, but also ranks better in search engines and converts better than short-form content.

Our attention spans aren’t shrinking, there is just so much less that actually compels our attention

Think about the great novels, the gorgeous writing that keeps us captivated and immersed in the story, every word, thought and idea driving us towards the next. Or the great films that hook us into the story right from the start, keeping us glued to the screen until the credits roll, on the edge of our seats, compelled to see what happens next.

As humans, we crave ever more information, emotion, ideas, insight or entertainment – and 8.25 seconds’ worth of content doesn’t come close to satisfying that craving. We don’t care how long a book or an article or a video is, as long as we have a compelling reason to pay attention.

Yet there is simply way too much content out there that is consistently mediocre or completely boring. No wonder we don’t pay attention to most of it!

We must stop equating human attention span to that of a goldfish; it’s a fiction and serves only as an excuse for marketers to continue creating content that is not grabbing anyone’s attention. We have to start giving our customers reasons to pay attention. And length doesn’t matter at all.


Heidi Taylor is an award-winning senior marketing strategist with 25 years' experience of helping organisations engage with their customers, creating impact and differentiation. She is a sought-after speaker at marketing conferences in the UK and internationally, and regularly contributes articles to marketing journals in print and online. You can follow her on Twitter @TaylorMadeInKew.

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