From Instagram to House of Cards — a Study on Attention Spans

Attention spans are being pushed to the edges. From the overload of micro content to binge watching entire seasons in a weekend, brands must adjust their strategies to gain attention.

A recent 2014 study by the National Center of Biotechnology Informationreports that the average attention span in 2013 was 8 seconds. Down from 13 seconds in the year 2000. A startling statistic that’s somewhat hard to believe. I mean, how do they come up with that number? What are they studying? Is it really true?

The study also reports that, apparently, the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds… which makes our current situation even more dire.

Regardless of whether or not the 8 seconds is accurate, I think we can all agree on the fact that attention spans are decreasing. It’s obvious right? From quickly scrolling through social media to checking email an average of over 30 times an hour, we are immersed in a world of content overload. It’s even obvious during a lunch break at Chipotle — a line of hungry people with their heads down scrolling through Instagram with their index fingers. BBC Newsreports,

“An average US citizen on an average day consumes 100,500 words, whether that be email, messages on social networks, searching websites or anywhere else digitally.”

Look, I’m a guy and I’m an introvert. I only have so many words a day. Just reading a number like 100,500 is exhausting. No wonder I often feel like my decision making ability is impaired.

Twitter was the first big medium to captialize on this idea by limiting messages to 140 characters and many have followed. The social media platform Vine was created off of this very concept. What if attention spans were only eight seconds long? Then how should we build a mobile video platform? Instagram added video under the same premise, although they allowed a generous 15 second upload (and to be honest, I usually don’t even watch the entire 15 seconds — it’s too long).

It’s obvious that content overload along with decreasing attention spans has led to an age of micro conent — quick, consumable content that’s perfect for… waiting in line at Chipotle.

content overload + reduced attention spans

= micro content

So putting the actual number aside (8 seconds), let’s all agree that attention spans are decreasing.

And yet, there’s another phenomenon happening all around us: binge watching. Neflix defines bing watching as 2 to 6 episodes in one sitting. Raise your hand if that’s you. Yep… pretty much everybody.

A 2013 survey of Americans found that 61% of Netflix users “binge” regularly. Netflix makes it easy to do. I mean, just hesitate a few seconds at the end of a show and the next one is starting right up. We’re powerless against the cliffhanger.

Even more astonsishing is this Wall Street Journal report:

For one serialized drama, 25% of the viewers finished the entire 13-episode season in two days, while it took 48% of them one week to do so.

This past Friday, Netflix released House of Cards Season 3 in its entirety. It was one of the top trending topics on social media as many fans watched all thirteen episodes over the weekend. For comparison, one season is the equivalent of almost seven full length movies. That’s like going to seven movies in two days!

So what’s the deal here? On one end we’ve got an overload of micro content and information fatigue every day. On the other end we’re binge watching two to six hours of television at night. Aren’t those two extremes at odds with each other?

Maybe not.

Netflix hired cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken to study this behavior:

[He] believes our digital lifestyle, where storytelling is often reduced to bite-sized, 140 character conversations, leaves us craving the kind of long narrative of storytelling in today’s great TV shows.

TV streamers overwhelmingly agreed. 76% say watching multiple episodes of a great TV show is a welcome refuge from their busy lives.

Micro content during the day. Deep engagement at night. Interesting.

This isn’t an article about the “why” of binge watching or where this explosion of digital content is going to take us. Many others have written that. This is an article about marketing. This is an article about capturing attention. So the question that needs to be asked is,“How do you compete with Instagram? How do you compete with House of Cards?”

“How do you capture attention?”

I would argue that there’s two choices: (1) Join the information overload game by producing lots of micro-content or (2) deeply engage consumers with highly personalized choices.

Those are the edges. That’s where it’s been pushed.

So, where does your company fit best? 8 seconds? Or binge watching? Is lots of micro content and repeated touches best for your brand? Or does it serve your customers better to have high engagement and geniune interaction? Neither one is good or bad, right our wrong, but to someone who is trying to capture attention in today’s world, it’s a reality that must be understood.

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