The Goldfish Generation: Attention Is the New Currency for Advertisers

“The current average attention span of Web and mobile users is less than eight seconds — which is less than that of a goldfish.” So said Laura Henderson of Mondelez at last week’s ClickZ Live New York event.

According to Henderson, “attention is the new currency” for advertisers — and a shrinking attention span is making it that much harder to engage customers in an increasingly fragmented media market. She talked about the growing difference between the days (not that long ago) when a campaign could be planned for months and then launched and analyzed. Now it’s a much more real-time proposition.

We’ve gone from carefully executed mega-campaigns (Henderson calls them “message-led”) to newer, “context-led” campaigns that capitalize on ephemeral, viral events like the curious “llamas on the loose” video of those South American ungulates gamboling around a parking lot in Phoenix. The challenge, it seems, is to have a rapid-response creative team ready to build and launch a quickie-campaign somehow tying your brand to the event. In-house legal may not love it, but apparently, it delivers lift to the brand when done well.

“Newsjacking” – the art of piggybacking an ad campaign to a trending social media topic — was also discussed by Matt Gentile of Century21 Real Estate. His creative agency created a campaign when Twitter went public, urging the Twitter bird to look for a new “five-bedroom” nest. Apparently satisfied with the result, he suggested that “when you find a great creative team that really gets it, hang on tight.”

However, said Gentile, “We have to be careful not to jump the shark on newsjacking.” Apparently it’s a wonderful thing to connect with Millennial prospects around breaking news, but it might be quite a bad thing to connect in a way that could be perceived as negative or exploitative.

With short attention spans and instant virality, advertising has become less focused on iconic messaging and much more focused on instant messaging. Rapid campaign turnaround poses the risk of connecting inappropriately and causing damage to the brand. But with campaign shelf-life also shrinking rapidly — less than a day in most cases — perhaps the goldfish-like tabula rasa of the new generation of users poses much less long-term risk than in-house counsel would be prepared to admit: by the time they have a chance to get annoyed at your campaign, they already will have forgotten it.

What also became clear is that “creative” is moving farther away from its former pony-tailed, long-lunching paradigm and into a template-driven, crowdsourced, almost push-button future where ideas meet technology in a market defined in minutes, not months. It’s clear that marketing hopefuls, if they long to succeed in this new age, must think more quickly and master the tools that increase content velocity.

But the eight-second attention span can only shrink so much farther before it resembles total inattention; and beyond “right now,” how much faster can creatives drive campaigns? It’s possible we are headed for a singularity in advertising: the edge of a black hole where you cannot get anyone’s attention, ever.

Another term mentioned at ClickZ Live New York was the instant-message meme “tl-dr,” which means “too long — didn’t read.”

And so, we draw this article to a close.

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