Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

The attention span myth: is shorter content really the key to audience engagement?

By Nick Mason, CEO & Founder, Turtl

As humans, we lead busy lives, so it’s not surprising that we’re subconsciously drawn to bite-sized content. Ask yourself: how often do you end up aimlessly scrolling through Twitter or TikTok? These apps exist to fill those boring in-between moments.

We’re curious about the psychology surrounding attention and formats, so we’ve looked into what causes these social media scrolling addictions, and whether content that’s broken down really does allow for better information retention.

The science behind social media scrolling

To better understand why people fall down the ‘rabbit hole’ of social media scrolling, Harvard Business Review carried out research exploring its addictiveness in 2020.

Using music videos as an example, researchers found that, while it’s easy to assume someone may get tired of watching several short videos in a row, the results were quite the opposite. Watching five videos made research participants 10% more likely to choose to watch more, rather than if they only watched one.

It also examined the impact of framing the videos people watched as similar to others. Researchers found that implementing links between content by including a similar category label made people 21% more likely to watch another related video.

It comes down to one thing: the accessibility of similar media. When something feels more accessible, it becomes easier for us to process, leading us to assume that we’ll enjoy it more.

To put it simply, we choose to go further down the rabbit role because viewing media like this feels good – even if it prevents us from doing more important things. But how can marketers draw upon these tactics to ensure audiences spend more time with longer-form business content and actually remember it?

Debunking the goldfish myth

You may have heard the idiom ‘humans have a shorter attention span than a goldfish’ before. This claim is regularly questioned for its lack of recognisable studies or research pieces. Additionally, the goldfish attention span myth has one significant counter-argument to contend with: bingeing.

Watching an entire series in one sitting, chaining podcast episodes, and powering through all the chapters in a book in one afternoon are all everyday habits – especially during the pandemic.

A Netflix survey found 61% of users regularly watched between two and six episodes in one sitting. The majority preferred bingeing their way through a series to taking it one episode at a time.

However, we’re all aware that we don’t have an unlimited bingeing capacity, hence why Netflix asks, ‘are you still watching?’ after a significant number of episodes have auto-played. So, attention span is clearly more complex than it first seems.

The three types of attention

Scientists discovered that attention isn’t a single process, but several smaller processes used in different contexts. These are:

  • Sustained attention – This is our ability to focus on one activity for a long period of time. Sustained attention is the type of attention you might have in business meetings, exams, or while watching a movie.
  • Selective attention – This is our ability to focus on one thing in particular while there are many other distractions around us. It’s how we’re able to focus on a conversation with a friend at a busy train station. Selective attention is also how we can work at home while our pets/kids run around us.
  • Divided attention – This is the type of focus that takes place during multitasking. We’re able to split our attention between two tasks at once, meaning we can take notes during a meeting or write an email while cooking lunch. We struggle to keep divided attention up for long. We are usually less productive at both things when we try to do them simultaneously.

Each type of attention applies to different circumstances, and the span of each varies from person to person.

The important thing to note is that when we’re applying sustained and selective attention, we’re more likely to absorb information and make fewer mistakes. When we apply divided attention, we’re more likely to become distracted and miss out on information.

The truth about attention spans

Attention spans are changing, but this isn’t because we’re getting worse at focusing. Instead, our digital environment is making it harder for us to apply the most effective kinds of attention.

A study conducted by the Technical University of Denmark found that our collective attention spans are decreasing due to the huge amount of information presented to us at all times. Social media, 24/7 news updates, and ads are constantly competing for our attention.

This means it’s becoming harder to give content our sustained or selective attention. Instead, we rely on our divided attention, trying to focus on several things at once, and often failing to do so.

What this means for marketers

The good news is that marketers don’t have to reinvent the wheel, or condense all of their content down into eight-second bitesize chunks.

The answer is modular content, something that is quickly becoming the latest trend in marketing.

Similar to modular construction, a modular content strategy comprises distinctively separate pieces of writing which can be assembled to make longer pieces of content. Alternatively, they can be left as shorter pieces by themselves.

Using this process, marketers can break an article down into the main informative sections that can then be targeted at subsets of their audience, resulting in a more personalised experience for readers.

When paired with interactive elements, you’re paving the way for greater sustained attention and higher engagement. The less goldfish-friendly you can make your content, the better.