How many times have you heard the refrain “attention spans are getting shorter” lately? Many marketers believe they are no longer speaking to humans but goldfish in this regard, who are famously cited for having longer attention spans (nine seconds) compared with ours (eight seconds) in this digital age. This frequently referenced anecdote is one of our favorites when it comes to showing off how much we’re in tune with today’s marketing psychology.
The problem with this little nugget of wisdom, though it seems to come from a Microsoft study, is that its origin can’t be properly traced, as BBC reporter Simon Maybin discovered when he went digging for clues. And when you ask researchers who are actually working on the study of attention span, you find a common sentiment: It’s not as simple as that.
If you flip through the pages of a cognitive psychology textbook, you find that the scientific world of attention research is quite vast.
Attention is a process that directs mental resources toward the information and cognitive processes that are most salient at any given time. In other words, you can think of attention like a moving spotlight of mental focus.
Divided attention isn’t a symptom of our digital age. In fact, it’s always been a function of how our attention works. We need to be able to select and process the multiple inputs that will lead to the most useful picture of our environment. That means dividing our attention among a set of stimuli and selecting which aspects to focus on.
Try to think of the challenges of modern marketing in this way: We don’t have decreased attention spans; we have an increasing number of distractions. Our brains are simply doing what they’ve always done when confronting a plethora of information; they’re trying to sort through it efficiently and effectively.
The online world is more saturated with irrelevant and erroneous information than ever before. Cue the fake news banter. In order to handle this content frenzy, we need to juggle multiple inputs and make quick decisions about whether something is relevant and worth paying attention to, otherwise we’d waste weeks and years chasing unavailing stimuli down the digital rabbit hole. (I personally think I still need more practice.)
But in addition to the presence of more distractions, it’s also possible that instead of our digital landscapes forcing increased fragmentation of our attention, we are simply surrounded by more content that requires less attentional investment (like this waterskiing squirrel my boyfriend just interjected with).
If our attentional resources are finite as most cognitive scientists tend to agree, we are more easily able to divide them among multiple inputs if those inputs don’t require intensive processing. Give people something valuable that absorbs and challenges their attention and they won’t have the capacity to juggle numerous other stimuli.
For marketers, this means that in-depth, quality content is still king. Flashy, bite-sized morsels often just encourages further attention splitting. Give your audience some credit when it comes to their attentional abilities and offer up something that will engage and absorb them. Use your content to tell rich stories, ask difficult questions, evoke complex emotions, and invite your audience to play an active role in the problem-solving and conclusion-drawing process.
One important thing to realize about attention is that its processes aren’t always operating on a conscious level. That means that a part of our attention may be storing or using information about something of which we’re not consciously aware. If it’s hard to imagine how our brain could be paying attention to something without us knowing, consider the fascinating classic experiment on unconscious priming. Try out some priming exercises for yourself in this video, then read how it works below.
Priming is a phenomenon where exposure to one stimulus influences a subsequent response to another stimulus. For example, study participants might be presented with a word for just a few milliseconds—not enough time for them to consciously recognize the word. Let’s say they were presented with the word “butter.” Then, when asked to complete the word “br___,” participants are significantly more likely to complete the word with “bread” than “brake” or “bride,” for instance, because of the associated word “butter” they’ve been primed with, despite the fact that they’d be unable to tell you that they saw the word “butter” beforehand.
This is a fascinating demonstration of how certain pieces of information we’re exposed to, even if we didn’t think we’d been paying attention to them, can affect the decisions we make and the actions we take later on. Priming can happen across all modalities of information too, from visual and auditory to verbal and semantic (word meaning).
For marketers, this means that the details matter, even if you’ve assumed your audience isn’t paying much attention. Make sure all the elements of your content have a designated purpose and are working together to achieve your goals. Ask detail-oriented questions: Do we really need this extra sentence and would a light green work better for this background?
Habituation happens when we become so accustomed to a particular stimulus that we stop paying attention to it.
For better or worse, this has happened with the fire alarm in my building. Rather than prompting me to get up and exit the building, I instinctively head to the silencing button as I’ve become accustomed to the somewhat routine announcement that somebody in an adjacent building has set it off (probably by smoking in the hallway), followed up invariably by the resetting of the system announcement. Now, far from having any association with an actual fire, the sound just elicits concern for my cat who’s vanished into the nearest bolt-hole for safety.
For marketers, this means always keeping your content marketing strategy fresh. Test out different formats, channels, and content ideas on a regular basis. If your audience is used to getting infographics from you, try a longer narrative piece in your next email newsletter. Or if you tend to post photos on your social channels, try a video or an interactive poll or contest once in a while. Keeping your content evolving is more exciting for you, and it’s more exciting for your audiences too.
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Featured image attribution: Gustavo Spindula