Bite-Sized Advertising?

The March issue of “Wired” magazine touts a trend toward “snack-o-tainment,” the idea we’re becoming accustomed to consuming large amounts of “bite-size” content rather than the longer-form stuff of traditional media: online video clips, the iPod nano, pay-per-view TV shows on iTunes, short games played on handheld devices, the list goes on.

The trend, as “Wired” sees it, is toward a culture in which short attention spans rule, and nothing that takes over three minutes has a chance of surviving the onslaught.

Setting aside the grammatical Armageddon that leads to constructions like “snack-o-tainment,” and the fact the bulk of “Wired” comprises feature articles that take longer than three minutes to wade through, the idea that media and entertainment must be delivered in short bits has resonated with a lot of people.

On the surface, it makes sense. Video clips rule, as YouTube, Google Video, eBaum’s World, and LiveLeak prove every day. Blogging is a form of media snacking, with longer stories summarized and pointed to by millions of bloggers trolling the Web and presenting us with virtual party platters of information tidbits. Music on demand, “Daily Show” clips, sound bites… It appears the short-attention-span culture is taking over.

Or is it? And as a marketer, should you modify your thinking to grab short-term thinkers’ attention spans? Will video blogs and bulleted content take over from where TV, magazines, and newspapers traditionally held audience attention? Is the future of the world a “USA Today” style mishmash of short-form content, quick takes, and info tidbits?

Maybe not. As blogger M1k3¥ points out, many forms of entertainment are actually getting longer, not shorter. TV shows like “24,” “Deadwood,” and “Lost” reward long-term viewing, and punish viewers who just want a bite. Games are moving away from the quickie arcade nibbles of the past to epic sagas (e.g., “Oblivion: The Elder Scrolls” and “Grand Theft Auto”) that can literally take weeks to play. And while movies are becoming shorter experiences, anyone whose butt survived a viewing of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (251 minutes) or “Gods and Generals” (231 minutes) can attest to the fact Hollywood hasn’t yet killed the epic.

It’s dangerous to assume everyone on the Web is searching for short snippets. It leads marketers to assume we don’t have to do heavy lifting to get our messages across effectively. Sure, accomplishing brand building in :15 snippets, short copy, or teaser animations may be good for some things, but for higher-value products and higher value propositions that require more than mere logo recognition, it’s more, not less, that gets the job done.

It’s hard to believe. Most of us are taught nobody reads on the Web, and we should therefore try to keep messages and copy short. But a recent Poynter Institute survey found online news readers are actually more likely to go to the end of the story than those who read news in print. Yes, it has something to do with the fact most online stories don’t require jumping to some difficult-to-locate page deeper in the publication. But it also points to a fact many tend to forget:

People are often online because they want information, not entertainment.

Even if they’re online for entertainment, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re online with the same expectations they might have for other forms of entertainment, such as television.

This makes studies like this one, showing Second Life users are unhappy with how brands are intruding into their virtual community, seem not so surprising. While a bunch of marketers have jumped on the Second Life bandwagon with a flurry of islands, a full 72 percent of Second Life users are disappointed with what these brands have to offer. That’s a lot of money spent to make a negative impact on a lot of people.

What works is what respects customers and their needs. Video ads have enjoyed a fair amount of consumer acceptance, though apparently not enough to alleviate difficulties for popular online shows like Rocketboom. And while lonelygirl15 might be toying with product placement, the show’s still suffering from the backlash provoked by a lot of folks being tricked by its deceptive reality.

Mistaking sound-bite maxims such as “snack culture” assertions from “Wired” for megatrends is a mistake too many of us make (can you say “long tail”?). For real success, the answer is to know your customers, understand their buying decision processes, then give them what they want. Sometimes it’s a snack, other times it’s a six-course meal. It’s your job to know the difference.

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