You’ve heard it before: 7 seconds. Or maybe 8. Either way, you’ve got a pretty small window of time to grab your audience’s attention before they click away to the next shiny object. Because attention spans are just shorter in the digital age.
We, therefore, must feed this new reality and create content for goldfish.
Maybe not. (More on that below.)
Here’s the big idea: Marketing and communications professionals have internalized the myth of the short attention span, to the detriment of our work and our supporters’ relationships with the missions we serve. Consciously changing our own mindsets around attention will do more to improve our content and communications than any piece of goldfish content ever could.
Which is actually pretty awesome news for us.
So let’s recalibrate.
First off, that whole thing about our 7-second attention spans? Probably a lot of hooey in the first place. Our attention spans are “very much task-dependent,” says Dr. Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University, in an interview with the BBC. “How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is."
Because...of course. We will spend an hour and a half watching the latest superhero blockbuster on Netflix because that’s how much time the task demands. We’ll spend two minutes brushing our teeth because, well, we know it’ll take about that long and we would prefer not to have to visit our friends (and See3 clients) the endodontists.
With me so far? In case you’re interested, the requisite amount of time required to wrap up this article is another two minutes or so. (Feel free to brush your teeth while reading.)
The other element to take into account is that humans are neophiles - we like new things. And so the headlines announcing the latest scientific research tends to emphasize (or invent) the wild new finding that completely upends our previous understanding of the world. As James Hamblin writes in a recent article in The Atlantic, “If new research doesn’t change or challenge the way readers think about the world, why is it a story worth publishing?” Which, Hamblin continues, is not so great for us if our worldview is shaken every fifteen minutes. It’s also pretty crummy for science; constantly changing the narrative makes people lose faith in the process in the first place.
But I digress. (Blame my short attention span.)
The real problem, though, is what the 7-second attention span myth does for our attitudes towards our audiences. Hint: it makes us treat our audiences as if they have the attention span of a goldfish.
Let’s try an Improv Everywhere-style thought experiment. If you walked up to someone on the street and said, “I know you’re only going to be able to listen to me for seven seconds, so HERE IS SOME IMPORTANT INFORMATION ABOUT MY ORGANIZATION PLEASE TAKE IT!!” How might that go over?
Not so well, I imagine. Restraining orders may be involved.
Operating under the assumption that our audiences have short attention spans is doing them a severe disservice. Our supporters are smart. Thoughtful. Generous. Kind. They’re willing to sit with a piece of content - our organization’s content! - if it speaks to them. If it helps them become the kind of person they aspire to be.
If it has nothing to do with them, they’ll click away.
(As they should.)
That’s the most nefarious part of the 7-second attention span myth. It shifts the blame. Once our supporters have short attention spans, we can throw our hands up and declare that nothing can be done - our content just isn’t shiny enough. We can’t compete. They’re the reason our campaigns aren’t performing.
But we’re not powerless. Don’t fall into that trap. Push to do better.
Here’s how to start:
Next time you are writing a Facebook post or tweaking an email subject line or drafting copy for an event, shift your assumptions.
You’re not creating content for a goldfish.
Think of a single supporter, the person to whom you are directing this content. Empathize. Really. Picture your content coming up in the feed and ask yourself, as your supporter, “what does this have to do with me?”
“Does this inform me about something that matters, that resonates with my values? Does it entertain me in a way that makes me think about an issue in a new way? Does it give me something to share that reflects who I am as a person, not just who you are as an organization?”
Bottom line: Does the essence of what you’re sharing stop the scroll?
If not, don’t blame the end user. It’s on us.
As the digital world gets noisier, we’re facing the end of goldfish* content.
And that’s great news for our supporters - and for us.
*Side note, we should probably also stop treating goldfish like goldfish. Turns out they’re actually pretty smart.