Is reading not your thing?
Watch the video version, now featuring a part 2 not included in this post!
What if I told you the phrase, 'attention spans are getting shorter' is just something people say because they heard some other people say it once who also don't know what they're talking about.
I’ll prove it. Log into your YouTube account. Tap your photo icon. Tap time watched. I’ll wait. More time than you thought, wasn’t it?
I’ll prove it again. Think of how you engage with content. When you watch Instagram stories, or Facebook stories, or when you’re on TikTok, do you watch one and then stop? Or do you sit there, and scroll, and scroll and scroll. And then stop. Do something else for a bit. Then jump back in, and scroll, and scroll, and scroll and scroll.
Let’s go deeper. You’ll slump on the couch and binge a season of TV in one sad sad sitting.
You’ll scroll through Facebook and see another carbon copy of the same fake gold digger prank video, and you’ll keep doom scrolling straight past it. Because it sucks.
You’ll go down YouTube rabbit holes for hours on end. Because it’s either something relevant to you, or something you find super interesting or it’s something you simply find entertaining.
You’ll read books in the house, books on the train, books in the bookshop (you really should pay for it), books on a plane. You’ll read books on paper, books on plastic, you’ll ever read books with your ears. Well, I guess that’s more listening to books.
And don’t even get me started on podcasts, people go apeshit for podcasts, and giving unsolicited recommendations for podcasts I should listen to or starting their own podcast and giving unsolicited recommendations for me to listen to that podcast even though they know it’s about something I have absolutely zero interest in making it a pretty bad recommendation.
What I’m trying to say is that attention spans aren’t getting shorter. People just have a lower tolerance for content that sucks, or content that is of absolutely no interest to them.
Let’s get into the nitty-gritty, shall we.
Why do people think attention spans are getting shorter? Well, because Time magazine misrepresented the findings of a 2015 study conducted by Microsoft. The study found that the average time a user spends on a webpage before looking somewhere else is 8 seconds.
What does that mean? It means exactly that. A user will decide in the first 8 seconds of visiting a website if they’re going to continue, or they’ll search the literally infinite amount of other options they have for something they actually want to see. Absolutely nothing to do with attention span. Absolutely everything to do with making sure you’re putting out content that people want to see.
However, the geniuses at Time magazine ran the study alongside another study saying goldfish have an attention span of 9 seconds, and concluded that humans have worse attention spans than goldfish, even though the goldfish study was also bullshit because goldfish attention spans have not been studied, their memory has, and a 1994 study showed a goldfish’s memory isn’t even that bad.
Yep, that’s right. A goldfish’s memory isn’t as bad as you thought it was.
Time put the article out, and that was it. A whole bunch of marketing idiots got hold of it. Many more studies done to confirm the theory, all with dubious evidence, and here we are. Over 5 years later and, much like the goldfish, we’re swimming in a bowl of our own shit content.
Thanks Time Magazine!
What does that mean for you?
You need to understand that audiences live in a world of infinite choice and, if you want them to hear you, you need to be able to keep them around long enough for you to deliver the message. It doesn’t mean make the video shorter and hope you can speed read through it fast enough for them to hear you, because you will be ignored and you will be forgotten. It’s about being memorable. It’s about providing value there and then, not just promising value later on when they buy your product.
It also means, if you don’t have the skills to get the job done yourself, don’t be a cheapskate. In 2020 Ryan Brown, head of Brand Strategy at Cero, identified six critical shifts that must happen to make content compelling. And this is going off on a bit of a tangent, but I’ll paraphrase them;
Any text on screen needs motion graphics or has to have some sort of graphical representation. Users engage better with graphics. Graphics cost money. Find out how much. Then pay it.
Audiences prefer an informal tone over a formal tone. If you write like you’re sitting a year-12 English exam, get a writer. If you deliver lines like you were born with a stick up your ass the minute someone points a camera at you, hire an actor, presenter, influencer, whatever. Someone who can actually speak on camera. If you’re adamant it has to be you in the thing despite sounding like a robot, hire a director to guide you through it, Writers, actors, directors, all cost money. Figure out what you need, get the rate. Then pay it.
Dynamic content performs better than static content. So move the camera. Change your background. Shoot some b-roll. Buy stock footage. Add sound design. Plan how you will transition from one scene to another before you shoot it. Do whatever it takes to change or enhance your shots and your edit. All of that costs money. Find out how much. Then pay it.
Audiences are drawn to stories over facts, and again, if you can’t write, get a quote from a writer who can, then pay it.
Audiences want simplicity over complexity. If you don’t know how to simplify your complicated messaging, find out what it would cost for a writer to do it for you, then pay it.
If you don’t have the skills to do all that stuff yourself, and you’re not prepared to put your money where your mouth is by hiring people who can, in all the roles you need, you may as well save the money and don’t do it all.
You are always better off spending a little bit bigger to build the crew you need to execute your vision and create something that audiences actually want to engage with, so you can get a return on your, granted, substantial investment, as opposed to cheaping out, making something shit, having it buried under more slightly less shit content, and getting no return on your investment.
You’d be better off lighting that money on fire, at least you’ll get light and heat out of it. Albeit, not much, because you’re a tightass and put f-all in your budget to begin with.
I know I’ve gone off on a bit of a tangent there, but I just hate hearing people saying audiences have short attention spans, and then those same people go out there and make cheap garbage, and then bitch and complain about low view numbers. In what other business investment do you make a 0.1% investment and expect a 99.9% return? Video is no different. Put up, or shut up.
And the attention span excuse is complete and utter bullshit said by production companies and so-called ‘marketing experts’ to drive production costs low enough so business owners get suckered into buying.
So if, and when, you hear it said you need to either call it out immediately or run away as fast and as far as you possibly can, because engaging with that sort of thinking is a recipe for disaster.
Actually, if you do hear it said, shut them up these quick facts;
The phrase, ‘attention spans are getting shorter,’ is nothing more than a deliberate misrepresentation of statistics to excuse content creators from original thought. It’s a license to create shit content on the basis of, “we’re giving the people what they want,” despite the overwhelming evidence showing that people, in fact, don’t want it.
Stop making excuses. Stop misrepresenting the data. And most importantly, stop making content that sucks.