Content Creation

The Attention Economy: Strategies for Captivating Your Audience in the Digital Age

By Andrew Wheeler on October 10, 2023

Am I the only one sick of being compared to a goldfish?

You know what I'm talking about. A decade ago, the term 'The Goldfish Effect' was coined when a study by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information at the US Library of Medicine found that the average human attention span had dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2013—one second less than a goldfish's.

And it's been the hook in just about every article about brand engagement or content marketing since.

I have two thoughts on that:

  1. Was 12 seconds that much better? and;

  2. Can we actually claim the human attention span is that limited when 70% of American consumers (90% of American millennials) admit to regularly binge-watching content on streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu?

I don't think so.

You see, the problem has never been about our attention spans. It's about the fight for our attention. And that problem dates back even further than The Goldfish Effect.

The concept of the attention economy was first coined in the late 1960s by Herbert A. Simon. Simon characterized the problem of information overload as an economic one. While the supply of accessible information continues to grow, the demand for information is limited by the scarce attention we can give it.

It's not that our attention spans have gotten shorter. It's that our available attention is increasingly limited by the number of hours in a day, conflicting demands on our time and attention, and access to information.

Like any other finite resource, our attention has become a precious commodity. Every brand wants it, but few get it.

Todd Unger, Chief Experience Officer and SVP of Marketing and Member Experience at the American Medical Association, said it best on a recent episode of our podcast Content Disrupted: Bold Takes on Brand Marketing:

"When it comes to content, humans have an insatiable appetite for things they're interested in and no appetite at all for things they aren't."

Listen to the full episode here.

Todd points out that the internet has "supercharged enthusiast behavior," fueling people's insatiable desire to learn more about what they're passionate about and their expectations for instant gratification.

Yes, you have a very limited amount of time—literally seconds—to capture someone's interest before they move on. But that's because they're, understandably, budgeting their precious time.

If you can hook your audience in a moment of enthusiasm and provide instant access to more content that satisfies their curiosity, you can seamlessly integrate into their content binge habits, fostering repeat engagement over time. You just have to know how to do it.

What's Holding You Back from Capturing Your Audience's Attention?

The reason so many marketers use The Goldfish Effect to excuse why they can't captivate their audience long enough to convert them into followers or customers is simple.

It's easier to blame our visitors' "short" attention spans for poor conversion rates than to hold ourselves accountable for serving the right content to the right audience at the right time, every time.

I get it. Creating a content strategy that gets your audience from "I see it" to "I love it!" in less than ten seconds is tough. To be successful, you have to rethink your entire approach to content creation and distribution, and that can feel like a massive undertaking.

Here's my advice to help:

  1. Understand your audience: You need to nail audience targeting long before you engage. And I'm not just talking about simple demographics. You need to understand what they're passionate about and the problems they need solved in order to be and do better at work or in life.

  1. Define your purpose: Don't just create content for the sake of creating content. Crap content helped get us here in the first place. Each asset you create should align with your purpose in the world. You should be able to communicate that purpose in a few lines. What's the message? And how does it align with your audience's interests? In a world filled with noise, relevance is key.

  1. Collaborate: Align all your teams, including product, marketing, sales, and support, around your key messages. Stop playing whack-a-mole with siloed teams delivering different messages in different channels. Once your messaging is integrated, your content and customer experience can become integrated and more frictionless.

  1. Be everywhere your audience is: Achieving omnipresence is crucial in digital landscape where platforms quickly come and go. For your audience, for example, maybe TikTok is declining, SEO is regaining prominence, and Twitter X is no longer relevant. Where your audience finds information today likely won't be where they find it tomorrow, and you can't influence a large enough group in any single channel to make an impact anyway. You need to be present in every channel with a message that cuts across to succeed.

  1. Embrace consistency: A consistent message builds trust. Regardless of where your audience engages with your brand—social media, your blog, or any other channel—the essence of what you say should remain the same. Remember, your audience doesn't care about your brand; they care about the insights, tips, and resources you provide that genuinely help them improve and grow within their interests. Create golden nugget messages that resonate with their passions and build your content around them.

  1. Build relationships: Keep your eyes on the (right) prize; the goal isn't just to make a quick sale but to build lasting relationships. You want to become a habit for your audience. How do you continuously draw people back in once you have their attention? Create a bingeable content journey with no loose ends that lets your audience consume on-demand, when and where it suits them.

  1. Go narrow and deep: Specialization is the key to standing out. Focus on going deep with content that resonates with specific enthusiast communities. It's not about reaching everyone; it's about deeply engaging with those that matter.

  1. Stay fluid: Content consumption patterns and behaviors are always changing. Some of your audience might be visual learners while others prefer to dive deep into the details in ebooks and whitepapers. Be willing to switch up content formats and try new things. Building a strong and dependable foundation for content strategy, creation, and distribution, will make it easier to adapt and optimize your content to meet evolving audience demands and expectations.

The Atomization Advantage

We said goodbye to the traditional marketing funnel years ago. The modern customer journey is chaotic and unpredictable, but your content strategy can't be.

With the right approach—crafting core messages and adapting them into various formats for diverse audiences and channels—you can create a content ecosystem that nurtures brand loyalty and facilitates growth.

Generative AI can help in scaling these efforts.

Content atomization, the process of breaking down a piece of content into smaller, more strategic pieces, incorporates all of the strategies above to help you scale your content program, stamping out customer journey friction in the process.

With atomization, you can seamlessly:

  • Create different content for different channels and personas

  • Create more consumable content with the opportunity to dive deeper

  • Build a content ecosystem rather than rely on keyword stuffing to show up in search

  • Build a credible content brand people rely on

We've released ATOMM™, an AI-enabled content engine, to make atomization even easier for our clients. Simply create (or let us create) a piece of original, authentic, and high-quality content, identify your parameters, such as audience, voice/tone, and content type, and generate tailored new assets.

This approach allows you to amplify cohesive messages in every channel your audience engages.

The Goldfish Effect is tired. Your audience will give you more than 10 seconds of their attention when you earn it. And atomization is a strategic way to ensure you create content that does.

In the ever-evolving landscape of the attention economy, the challenge is constant but the solutions are adaptable. As you navigate the digital terrain, remember: don't chase a transaction; invest in your customers, and they'll invest in you.

Is generative AI a priority for your organization this year? Drop me a line. I'm here to help.


Featured image by Deagreez on Adobe Stock


Andrew Wheeler

Andrew C. Wheeler is the Chief Executive Officer of Skyword.