Multi-Screening Technology Pros and Marketers Fight the Good Fight
By now, everyone has heard the news and been hit with a heavy dose of reality.
If not, here it is again…
The attention span of humans has decreased to a mere 8 seconds!
This according to the latest scientific study.
To put this fact into sobering perspective, we’re told that our ‘attention span’ has decreased by 33% since 2000 and is now less than that of a goldfish.
What should we make of this 8-second milestone of humanity?
The same study also reports that…
Digital lifestyles are changing the brain,
decreasing the ability for prolonged focus
and increasing our appetite for more stimuli.
To make matters worse, we’re bombarded with sensory stimuli of all kinds. ‘Information overload’ they call it. It extracts a massive toll on employee productivity in attempts to cope with the flood of information.
What are the implications of the deluge of digital data combined with a shorter attention span?
Marketers who are in the attention-getting business have used our attention deficit to step up their game. It takes more effort than ever before to rise above the noise and be noticed. But the problem isn’t just getting attention.
It’s more imperative that media creators of all types use all the tactics in their toolbox — the WOW factors — to attract and retain attention … AND repeatedly regain their audience’s attention over and over again.
This aspect has been largely overlooked and is worth a closer look.
What the Study Says About Us
The study at the center of attention (oops) was executed by Microsoft Canada. The goal for this research was to understand what impact technologies that are used to access digital information are having on attention span.
I’ll give you a digest version here. You also can reference Wyzowl’s colorful infographic.
The study comprised a survey and activities that were designed to assess attention capacities.
The survey was conducted in late 2014 with 2000 Canadian subjects between the ages of 18 and 65. Then the brain activity of 112 subjects was recorded while they interacted with different media and performed various activities.
Their behavior was filmed and their attention levels were captured via electroencephalographs. A range of metrics were collected on digital lifestyles that prior evidence suggested could have an impact on attention and broader cognitive functioning.
The principal finding of the study is that…
Our attention span decreased from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds in 2014.
Other findings include…
People with higher selective attention actively choose to have fewer distractions. Those that spend more time multi-screening have significantly lower selective attention. Multi-screen activity means interacting simultaneously with multiple devices such as a smart phone while watching TV.
The study showed that people with increased digital consumption, social media usage and tech savviness ‘erode’ their long-term attention and struggle to keep focused. This has a significant impact on their work-life balance.
“Early adopters and heavy social media users front load their attention and have more intermittent bursts of high attention. They’re better at identifying what they want and don’t want to engage with.” (Microsoft Canada, 2015)
Overall, the segment of the population immersed in digital lifestyles lower their ability to remain focused when prolonged attention is needed.
Older people do much better at focusing attention longer than younger people. Younger people who are heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli. They’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media.
Let’s recast these results in terms of the challenge that marketing faces today.
The Challenge of Getting to WOW Above the Noise
Alvin Toffler, author of ‘Future Shock,’ predicted the rise of digital technology in 1970 and coined the term ‘information overload’. We’re bombarded endlessly with news, gossip and images that has rendered us information addicts.
Readers are saturated and suffering from information fatigue.
Information overload is closely related to cognitive load, which affects memory during information processing. Complex integration of information modalities can elicit a cognitive load so that less of the information is remembered.
To cope with this bombardment, we attempt to be more discerning and quicker to sort the wheat from the chaff.
The Microsoft study showed that a digital multi-screening lifestyle trains consumers to be less effective at filtering out distractions.
Human attention is increasingly a scarce commodity.
Multi-screener consumers are growing an appetite for new stimuli. It’s more stimulating for them to jump from subject to subject or device to device than it is to concentrate on one thing for a length of time.
How do we combat this behavior?
For marketers, this means more opportunities to hijack their attention, but also that brands need to work harder to retain it.
The Microsoft study suggests increasingly immersive, multi-touchpoint experiences should be our priority to combat disengagement among digitally-savvy audiences.
“When consumers are looking for something to care about at every moment, rapid fire tactics like branded content, native advertising and generally useful, entertaining, and shareable content are best.” (Microsoft Canada, 2015)
Let me put this into context.
The average page holds about 500 words. With an average reading speed of about 200 words per minute, it takes about 2.5 minutes or 150 seconds to read a page. With an 8-second attention span, each page must be laced with about 18 attention-grabbing WOW factors or our audience won’t be able to complete the page without distractions!
Today’s video games are a good example of this concept. They’re dynamic and absorbing of our attention. Action is always happening, or about to happen. There aren’t any dull periods of inactivity. Get distracted and you are sure to get surprised.
The WOW Factors Copywriters Use
We can’t discuss attention in a marketing context without mentioning engagement. The two are closely related, but not synonymous.
Engaging content is compelling and connects with your audience in intriguing or meaningful ways. It stimulates your audience to take action, to think more deeply about a topic, or to formulate an opinion.
Attention is a subset of engagement and connects with an audience on a more shallow level. Attention-grabbing headlines and leads may start the engagement process and even propel a reader into content. But as engagement loses its grip, attention-getting tactics must be employed.
Copywriters must turn to their trade-craft toolbox to lace tactics
throughout content to sustain their audience’s attention.
This is the backdrop for today’s marketing landscape.
Here’s a sampling of the tactics or WOW factors copywriters use.
Message relevancy: Ensure your message is relevant. Make it personal and communicate clear consumer value. Messaging needs to be tailored to cut through the clutter to be noticed. Make your content unique even if your idea isn’t.
It’s important that information is communicated in the right context at the right time (Microsoft Digital Trends 2015, Canada). Anything else and your information is considered spam.
Writing style: Writing is more about maintaining engagement. Use simple and precise words. Every word, phrase, sentence, and even punctuation mark must add something to your piece. Edit the extraneous bits.
Readers hate it when you bombard them with highfalutin jargon as they sour the experience. Convoluted and complex language is like fingernails on a chalkboard. It is sure to disengage your audience.
Use short paragraphs: A maximum of 3-4 sentences. They are faster to read. Large blocks of dense text are formidable and discouraging to busy people who want to consume your content but don’t want to put out lots of effort.
Use a mix of short and long sentences: Long complicated sentences inject friction into the flow. If it isn’t relieved quickly and becomes unbearable, your reader will stumble, fall and tap out.
Change pacing with different proportions of short and long sentences. Use punctuation that creates pauses (ellipses) or that connects two short sentences (dash). Write in a manner that reflects changing volume.
Shorten sentences by removing extraneous words, such as too many adjectives, adverbs, and other words that don’t add anything to a sentence?
Hook your reader early: Beginning copywriting courses stress the importance of headlines and leads to grab attention, impart intrigue and propel your readers into the content. Hook your readers in the first sentence or two using a thought-provoking question, quote, statistic, or story.
Disruption and surprise: Disruption is a powerful tool for capturing short attention. Motion against a static background is disruptive.
“Violate people’s expectations … you want to have people turn their eyes up a little bit more … we’re attuned to surprises and we have a pleasant experience with positive surprises.” (Ben Parr, Author, ‘Captivology’)
Tell stories: Connect with your audience through storytelling. Stories can embed your facts in context. Stories with suspense keep your reader on the edge of their seat.
U.S. radio news personality Paul Harvey was a master of suspense. At the end of each daily newscast, he would tell a story of the personal life of a historical figure his audience knew. But only at the very end would he reveal the name of the person and sign off with his classic byline “…And now you know the rest of the story.” Mr. Harvey’s storytelling expertise and use of suspense kept every listener riveted to the end, all the while trying to solve the mystery before the reveal.
Storytelling helps your audience relate to your business and its values. The story behind a company’s brand can be intriguing, or even fascinating. With their off-kilter edgy approach, Patagonia is one of my favorite brands. Click the image below to listen to their story.
Ask questions: Force your audience to participate by asking provocative questions. They cause your audience to stop and think. Questions can direct your audience to new vantage points. Perhaps this encourages them to consider a different side of an issue.
Insert statistics and little known facts: Use this tactic to provoke your audience’s imagination. When were you last genuinely surprised? That moment probably caused you to sit up and take notice. From that point on, you payed closer attention. Information paired with data is more easily remembered because when you learn something new, your brain releases dopamine, a chemical that memory depends on.
Add visual aids and video: Images break the monotony of long pages of text that push your audience to distraction, particularly if colorful click bait ads are in the margin competing for your audience’s attention. Images draw readers forward like a moth to a flame. If the visual doesn’t support the narrative and add clarity, it is considered clutter and is distracting.
Throw in a few pop culture references: Pop culture references add attractive flavor to your content. They show your audience that you’re relatable, and therefore likeable.
Inject experts: Expert opinion or advice is valuable. It can reinforce your position or offer an alternative perspective on your idea. Your audience will be intrigued and consider what the expert has to say on the subject of the content.
End with a punchy conclusion: Avoid a simple summary. That’s boring. Instead, end with a thought-provoking question, a call-to-action, or restate your main point. Persuade your audience to care about your point.
The Microsoft Canada study showed how technology has driven a 33% decrease in our attention span to a mere 8 seconds over 14 years.
The irony is that the same devices we use for productivity and instant gratification are also sources of distractions.
So what will the future hold? Will our attention span continue to decrease? Is there an end state or a point of diminishing return in which we become too stupefied to accept more technology? Perhaps part of the answer lies in better user experiences among our devices. Only time will tell.
In the meantime, marketers strive to make their ideas or products stand out in a sea of sameness. The stakes for an audience’s attention are much greater every year. Their filters for that which is deserving of their attention continue to grow more sophisticated.
I’ve given you some ideas as to how marketers combat a multiscreening consumer’s behavior by weaving attention-grabbing tactics or WOW factors into the fabric of content to sustain their audience’s interest to the end.
The silver lining in all this: Persons with more digital lifestyles are better at simultaneously processing information from different sources.
For what it’s worth, digital behaviors improve our ability to alternate attention. Connected consumers are becoming better at doing more with less … with shorter bursts of high attention and more efficient encoding to memory.
Ha! Take that silly goldfish.
I’d love to read your comments about this topic. Please share your thoughts openly.
This article is dedicated to Alvin Toffler, a futurist and writer who authored numerous books anticipating the future and resulting change. He coined the term ‘information overload’ and wondered if humans were psychologically resilient enough to handle bombardment by information. Mr. Toffler passed away June 30, 2016 at 87.