Is Attention Shrinking, Or Is It Just Selective?

Your customer is not a goldfish.

Believing that consumers have shrinking attention spans isn’t giving them enough credit. And it’s ignoring the fact that they can watch half a season of Game of Thrones in one sitting. The goldfish statistic is an excuse for bad advertising. And sadly, it’s now become a rationale for communication plans built almost entirely on :15 and :06 ads.

I’ve always struggled with the idea of brand-building with increasingly shorter content. Stan told me once that he thinks brand awareness is a silly goal. Brand understanding should be our goal.

I agree. And brand understanding is best achieved in longer forms. Google’s research even shows that longer is stronger for this. YouTube’s top ads last year, in terms of brand favorability, averaged 44 seconds long. We can’t endear brands to people in :06 increments. Maybe we can reinforce an idea or keep the brand top-of-mind, but we can’t raise brand understanding in :06. Imagine if dating were limited to :06 dates – we’d learn a lot of names but never fall in love.

The problem we’re trying to solve for isn’t shrinking attention, it’s selective attention. Which arguably has always been true, long before digital ads. It’s just that we now have a perfect storm of consumers empowered with the ability to skip, marketers empowered with the ability to measure it, and all parties overwhelmed with choices.

Kantar did a nice study on this recently. They found that today’s consumers have an on/off style of attention. They’re either intensely engaged or entirely disconnected. Attention is like a muscle: They either choose to flex it or they don’t. So it makes sense that we can binge-watch Netflix, or happily watch a four-minute ad from Apple directed by Spike Jonze. Once we choose to pay attention, we’re all in.

I’ve seen it firsthand with “Reclaim the Kitchen,” our work for Wolf. Running a 2:41 video on YouTube and Facebook went against popular opinion. But we saw an average view time of 1:49, skip button and all.

All of which makes me believe we should become scholars of attention. Dive deep and try to understand what captures our target audience’s attention. Not just the devices and channels, but the recent topics and story arcs that are worthy of their attention. Because if we don’t understand that, then our brands will likely be on the wrong side of the on/off attention equation.

I think it starts by rethinking the way we answer this question on our creative brief: “When and where is the target most receptive to our message?” It needs to be more than a media-consumption synopsis. It needs to be an insight into the whens, wheres, and whats of capturing their attention. “Reclaim the Kitchen” worked because it tapped into a cultural tension point at a time when our audience was embracing farm-to-table and the slow food vs. fast food movement.

But before we proclaim “Long live long-form,” we can’t limit ourselves to just one :60 anthem. Selective attention is fleeting. A lot of today’s best stuff hits for only 48 hours or so, then it’s on to the next. Procter & Gamble’s two-minute ad “The Talk” this year did just that: tapped into something worthy of attention and hit for a few big days. It’s what makes the John Lewis Christmas ad so brilliant each year. People anticipate it, look forward to it; it hits big for just a few short days but symbolizes the start of Christmas and is shared by millions.

There’s an opportunity for us to zig while most everyone else in our industry zags. Let them believe in shrinking attention spans and that :06 ads are the future. We can believe in selective attention – that brands can still be built with good ads even if they’re long, so long as we find new ways to create stuff worthy of people’s time and attention. And do it again and again.

Categories: Advertising, Digital Media, Google, Industry, New Media, New Technology, Social Media

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