Embracing Shorter Attention Spans

It is fashionable lately to deplore the shortened attention spans brought on by information overload.

Yet, there are benefits to speed and multi-tasking or we wouldn’t all be doing it. Who would willingly pick the slow lane?

A few weeks ago I took time to catch up on some 1950’s movies I’d never seen, Giant (1955) and Rebel Without a Cause (1956). They were both very good movies, but moved so s-l-o-w-l-y that if I hadn’t been watching on an iPad in an airplane I may have given up.  Long slow reaction shots, long slow establishing shots,and music swelling as the camera all give the audience time to process what did– or might– happen.

Most movies just don’t work this way anymore. Perhaps with good reason? Audiences have changed their processing speed. As Terry Teachout, WSJ Theater reviewer observed, “You can count on contemporary audiences to get the point and see where you’re headed, and they don’t want to wait around for you to catch up with them.” (Get to the Good Part, WSJ)

The same is true in the classroom where students seem wired to take in more content than teachers sometimes credit them with. One study used spyware to objectively measure classroom laptop activity and found the impact on learning depends on how the laptop is used.

“Students who frequently checked e-mail and surfed non-course-related sites did not appear to sweat for their sins on homework, quizzes, tests, or the final exam. High rates of instant-messaging activity, however, showed significant correlations with poor performances on all but one test during the semester.” (“What Are They Really Typing?” InsideHigherEd.com)

Shorter attention spans are having a profound impact on marketers, who have to work harder to win and sustain attention — and perhaps that is a good thing.

Steve Rubel of PR firm, Edelman, recently gave a speech on how brands can ‘gain authority in an age of digital information overload‘. Attention now much be earned, not bought. We used to think of brand trust as a necessary condition for believability. Now it is a necessary condition to be heard at all.  Marketers are spending more time thinking about how they can be authentic and add meaning to their marketing, and less on how to ‘break through’ with a message. How could that be a terrible thing?

Shorter attention spans are also forcing brands to pare down their messages.  In today’s brand strategy, mantras and vision are more useful than sentence-long positioning, especially if that positioning has more than two benefits (and how long has it been since you’ve seen one that didn’t?).

Martin Lindstrom, author of ‘Buyology’ argued today for radical message simplification: a single word:

Even though recent studies indicate the brains of young children have begun to adapt to this multi-channeling phenomenon, the concept of simple needs to be further simplified by advertisers. The word count in ads must be reduced, the messages minimized, and the language, pictures, music and sounds completely aligned. Marketers should forget the notion of three messages in one ad. Forget about a logo, a pack shot, a web address, and a slogan on the end frame in your TV ads. Let’s insure your communications remain relevant for the future. First, does your brand own one word–one truly unique word? I say “cowboy” and you think “Marlboro.” I say “safety” and you think “Volvo.” How is your brand stacking up? Is it claiming its own territory or is it melting into the generic mass? One where there’s any number of companies laying claim to “quality,” “worldwide,” and “service”–to name just a few. (“The Cure for ADD-vertising“, Fast Company).

I don’t mean to discount the compelling research on the myth of multi-tasking or the deleterious effects of distraction on our daily life. But there’s no going back. Distraction and multi-tasking are here to stay, especially among young adults.

A recent study found that university students who study while using Facebook had a 20% lower grades. Tellingly, 79% of students said they don’t believe it. (“Infographic: Does Facebook Make You a Better Student?” PC Magazine)

Truth is we wouldn’t want to go back to the days of Giant and Rebel Without a Cause. And marketers simply must adjust.