If consumer attention spans are shrinking, who is to blame?
Yesterday I was at a luncheon presentation of our local American Marketing Association chapter. The speaker was quite interesting. But at one point in the presentation, he talked about consumer attention spans and how any marketing message over a certain length is doomed to failure.
All of a sudden I flashed back to an article written by a good friend of mine, Tom Flynn, president of a prominent Des Moines advertising agency. The article, entitled “Your Consumers Are Not Goldfish,” challenged the relevance of a Microsoft study that declared the nine-second attention span of a goldfish is actually longer than that of a human being. How they measure the attention span of a goldfish is beyond my pay grade but this study soon went viral and now seems to be part and parcel on every presentation on best marketing practices.
Of course, whenever conventional wisdom goes unchallenged, the inner contrarian in me kicks in. As Flynn says, we are not marketing to goldfish. We are marketing to consumers. And while I am not so naïve as to deny that today’s consumers are bombarded by an unprecedented amount of distractions and information overload, I don’t believe the problem is shrinking attention spans. Rather, I “have seen the enemy and it is us.” If we, as marketers, are not capturing and holding the attention of our potential customers, most likely it is because we have failed to present our messages in interesting and compelling ways.
Consider these facts:
- The average novel is about 300 pages, yet print book sales grew more than 10 percent between 2013 and 2017.
- Documentary films are typically a minimum of 40 minutes and many run much longer. Nonetheless numerous studies indicate a substantial increase in the popularity of documentaries.
- The number of people actively listening to podcasts has increased from 12 – 24 percent in recent years.
- 73 percent of consumers “binge watch” video content – and the number is even higher for millennials and GenZ-ers.
There is no doubt, consumer attitudes and habits have changed over the years but I would submit that human nature has not changed. People still read, listen to and watch what interests them. And as long as we write and present information in ways that sustain their interest, duration is irrelevant.
This is not to suggest there isn’t merit in seeking brevity. Brevity is a constructive tool that forces us to be disciplined and concise in our writing and development of marketing messages. As my colleague Aaron Charles recently wrote, we need to make sure our messages “get to the point.” Bloated and uninteresting content is the reason consumers aren’t engaged in our marketing messages, not goldfish-like attention spans.
If consumers have lost interest in what we have to say, it is not their fault, it is ours.
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