According to a study of 18-45-year-olds conducted by The Associated Press, the average human attention span in 2012 was eight seconds. The average attention span of a goldfish is nine.
As sensational as this may sound, it shouldn't really come as a surprise. One need only spend a few minutes online to see this phenomenon first-hand. Consumers crave short-form content - it's one of the reasons that social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have done so well. We tweet within our 140-character limit, we post pithy comments to our walls, and if we're adding text commentary to Pinterest and Tumblr posts at all, it's typically very brief.
It may be Millennials and digital natives who are saddled with a reputation for seeking instant gratification, yet it seems that all of us are increasingly drawn to visuals and short videos that can be consumed in seconds flat. Social video marketing company Unruly reports that Twitter users are now sharing nine Vine videos per second, a figure that has nearly doubled since April. With a six-second limit on length, branded Vines are four times more likely to be shared than traditional video ads.
Capped at 15 seconds, Instagram videos - which launched last month - are more than twice the length of Vines, but the Facebook-owned format is already ingratiating itself with both users and brands. Within the first 24 hours after launch users posted more than five million Instagram video clips. Among them were branded videos from advertisers like Burberry, Gap, and Jeep. In terms of creating an effective ad, the extra seconds that go beyond what's being offered by Vine are very appealing. In the hands of a creative marketing team and deft editing staff, 15 seconds is enough time to tell a compelling story about a product or brand. It's also still well within the limits of what the typical viewer is willing to watch.
Where content is concerned, we're all about getting it now. Some Twitter users still lament the fact that Instagram was acquired by Facebook simply because photos no longer appear directly within the Twitter stream. Having to click on an outbound link to view a picture takes an extra second - and that's a second we're no longer willing to spare.
This fast-and-furious mentality is gaining traction with web publishers, too. Medium.com, which posts blog-like viewpoints on various subjects, labels its articles with the amount of time it will take the average person to read them. Site visitors can gauge their level of interest in a story not only based on its title and description, but on whether it's a four-minute or 14-minute read. Forbes.com, meanwhile, has a "Real Time" section that allows site visitors to quickly scan new articles and updates. When consumers feel they only have a few minutes within which to get the latest news on tech, a post that went live four minutes ago is more likely to garner attention than one that's a day old.
Where does this leave brands? It's clear that there are many short-form content options at our disposal. Tools and services based on brevity are abundant, and so too are the attempts at using them for marketing purposes. What's interesting about this trend is that it's happening right alongside native advertising, which often takes the form of long branded articles and three-minute video clips. If consumers are smitten with short content, why are brands spending so much on native ads?
It's a question of context. In order to determine how consumers are going to react to your content, whether short or long, you have to consider the nature of the platform. When they're on Twitter, consumers are thinking in terms of speed: the speed at which they can post relevant information, share a time-sensitive tweet, reply to a direct message, and so on. There's a sense of urgency that doesn't exist on long-form content sites - at least not to the same degree. The same goes for Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr; because users are expecting to see images, they're predisposed to have a shorter attention span. Since it takes only seconds to look at a photograph, inserting a block of text into this environment can throw the user off balance.
There's no reason why advertisers can't suffuse their digital marketing plans with short-form messaging without also featuring longer, more in-depth content. Each serves a unique purpose, and when placed on the appropriate content channel, each can garner desirable results. As you plan your campaigns, think of social media services and sites in terms of the behavior they're likely to provoke, and match your content accordingly. Life's too short for branded content that isn't put in its rightful place.
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Tessa Wegert is an interactive media strategist with Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy and services agencies, serving such brands as Bioré, Bratz, Food Network, illy, Hunter Douglas, Jergens, and Olympic Paints and Stains. An industry veteran, Tessa has worked in online media buying and planning, marketing, and online copywriting since 1999. She is an active freelance writer specializing in interactive marketing who has contributed to U.S. and Canadian publications, including "USA Weekend Magazine," "Marketing Magazine," "The Globe and Mail," and "The Montreal Gazette." She is frequently quoted as an industry expert and speaks regularly at industry conferences and events.
March 19, 2014