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  • Studies suggest our attention spans now last just eight seconds
  • Studies suggest our attention spans now last just eight seconds
    NASA HQ PHOTO, Creative Commons (2014) ©
REPORT

Do goldfish really have longer attention spans than humans?

According to research, goldfish now officially have longer attention spans than humans. But is it really that simple? Canvas8 sits down with Faris Yakob, author of Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World to discuss how human attention is changing and why it’s so important.

Location North America / Northern Europe

Scope
The notoriously forgetful goldfish is said to have an attention span of just nine seconds. And according to research from Microsoft, smartphone-toting, second-screening, binge-watching people of the digital age have fallen short of that figure. Between 2012 and 2015, the average human attention span dropped from 12 seconds to just eight. [1]

But with the majority of us still managing to navigate the world on a day-to-day basis, what does this really mean? “That research is based on things like web loading habits,” explains strategist and creative director Faris Yakob. “Human attention is blurrier than that. Yes, we may have less patience now. But is that the same thing?” [2]

We know people can’t stop themselves paying attention to certain things; alarms; gun shots; bears. But it’s subjective, and while advertisers are buying attention at least by proxy, they can never be sure people are paying attention

Faris Yakob, strategist

Defining attention is tricky. In his book, Paid Attention: Innovative Advertising for a Digital World, Yakob explores the importance of this hard-to-handle aspect of the human condition in the marketing world. “It’s the foundation of advertising and communications,” he says. “Attention is the very first thing you need in order to get communication to work, and in media you buy human attention in packaged outputs. The industry is dependent on it.” [2] 

According to magician Apollo Robbins, attention can be manipulated, provided you know what you’re doing. “It’s like water,” he says. “It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope it flows the right way.” [3] This idea resonates with Yakob, who believes advertisers are similarly able to mould attention. “We know it’s directional and that it can be controlled,” he confirms. “And we also know people can’t stop themselves paying attention to certain things; alarms; gun shots; bears. But it’s subjective, and while advertisers are buying attention at least by proxy, they can never be sure people are paying attention.” [2] Canvas8 sits down with Yakob to discuss how attention spans are changing and how marketers are best harnessing them.

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We need to talk about supply and demand
At the Techonomy conference in 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt announced that every two days, people were generating as much information as was produced between the dawn of civilisation and 2003. “The real issue is user-generated content,” he opined. [4] Whether or not Schmidt’s estimation was accurate, his insinuation certainly was; the internet has led to an abundance of content.

“There’s now more content than there are people to consume that content,” confirms Yakob. “There’s a surplus of content and a deficit of attention. Previously, the ability to make things public was highly privileged. Media complexes could do it, the government could do it and advertisers could do it. Then, the floodgates opened.” [2]

Value is a function of scarcity. If something’s infinite, it’s not worth anything. And there’s this whole shift to content marketing from companies at the exact moment when content itself has become massively devalued

Faris Yakob, strategist

And in this shift from relative scarcity to overwhelming abundance, people don’t know where to direct their attention. There are even studies that suggest having more options literally makes people more unhappy. [5] “Abundance is hard for us to understand because we’re not used to it,” says Yakob.[2Ultimately, attention is finite. Each person only has so much of it to offer, and so the more content that exists in the world, the more directions their attention is being pulled in.

But while having more content to consume can be stressful, that’s not where the main issue lies. “Value is a function of scarcity,” says Yakob. “Economics is literally the science of scarce allocation. If something’s infinite, it’s not worth anything. And there’s this whole shift to content marketing from companies at the exact moment when content itself has become massively devalued.” [2]

There’s a surplus of content and a deficit of attention There’s a surplus of content and a deficit of attention
UNIONDOCS, Creative Commons (2010) ©

Attention is as attention does
And as intrinsically irrational creatures, what draws people’s attention is thoroughly unpredictable. Look no further than the power of the viral video; while YouTube clip ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’ has generated over 800 million views and still attracts news headlines more than eight years after it was uploaded, ‘Gangnam Style’ by Psy has now generated so many views that in late 2014 it ‘broke’ YouTube’s view counter. [6][7]

Once again, this poses a huge problem for content marketing. “The content model is about making things people want to consume,” says Yakob. “And it’s often impossible to predict if it’ll be good or not. Screenwriter William Goldman says that nobody knows anything about what’ll work in Hollywood, because if they did, everybody would be doing it. For every nine failures, there’s one megahit, and the megahit is always impossible to predict.”

His conclusion is simple; “people are weird, regardless of how much research you do.” But he points out that people aren’t always prepared to confront the cold truth of what’ll grab their attention; whether it’s an adorable kitten video or something sparkly. “Paul Feldwick, who was head of planning at BMP, wrote about the fact that people won’t believe that 25 seconds of chimpanzees telling jokes followed by five seconds of tea makes you pay for tea,” he says. “But it does. We know it does. But because it makes us feel uncomfortable, we deny it.“ [2]

Kittens, kids and chatting chimpanzees; what holds our attention is rarely predictable Kittens, kids and chatting chimpanzees; what holds our attention is rarely predictable
Kurt Komoda, Creative Commons (2010) ©

The new media exchange
But regardless of what actually draws people’s attention, the point Yakob is making is that when it comes to advertising, the old rules no longer apply. “Content is something people chose to consume,” he says. “While advertising is something you pay people to watch. That’s the core difference. People don’t want to be advertised to, so the deal was always, ‘we will pay for this media to exist in exchange for a word from our sponsors’.” [2]

And that exchange, as Yakob notes, felt fair. But then, people started to get different ideas. “Suddenly, because of technology, because of the internet, and so on, people started finding workarounds,” he says. “Look at television. People can now get content that feels like TV, but not actually on a TV, and without any ads.” [2] Whether it’s the 70% of internet users who see no problem with piracy or the 65 million subscribers of Netflix, that’s a lot of people who are getting out of seeing adverts. [8][9] Even outside of video content, AdBlocker has a formidable user base of more than 150 million. [10]

Content is something people chose to consume, while advertising is something you pay people to watch

Faris Yakob, strategist

Ultimately, people are savvier than ever, and they know how to get out of looking at things they don’t want to look at – most of the time. “You’ve got outdoors; billboards,” concedes Yakob. “It’s one of the only kinds of media you can’t switch off. Billboards are hugely important. Look at any science fiction version of the future, there are always really intrusive billboards that are personalised and terrible.” [2]

That said, some spaces are becoming more accommodating to advertisers, even if people don’t realise it. “The metaphor of the web – places, pages and homes that were static – has moved to a stream,” explains Yakob. “From news apps to Facebook feeds, all these digital things are streamlined.” And if scrolling is the new clicking, it feels far less intrusive to scroll past an ad – almost like flicking past one in a magazine – than a pop-up intercepting a potential click. “Advertisers were trying to interrupt a non-linear flow with ads,” continues Yakob. “But actually the stream is linear. Putting ads in there makes sense because you can interrupt it, and people can – to a point – ignore it.” [2]

People no longer feel obliged to watch ads People no longer feel obliged to watch ads
Garry Knight, Creative Commons (2014) ©

A brand you can’t look away from
So if the old rules are out for advertisers, that means all the old ads have to go, too. In their place, a new breed of branded experiences, stories and tools are increasingly important. “Anything that makes people’s lives easier or more interesting,” says Yakob. “They’re the areas that can enable a brand to engage with audiences usefully, and the great thing about that is that they feed each other. Red Bull released a documentary about Felix Baumgartner a year later on the anniversary. That was an experience that continues to churn out content.” [2

And sometimes, good content can change people’s perception of an entire brand. “EasyJet’s in-flight magazine is exceptional,” says Yakob. “It’s just become a Virgin-type company and I didn’t even notice. It’s not about the flight experience, it’s about the brand. And it’s not technically content marketing either, it’s just a brand creating something and putting it in a space, where they say; ‘we know you’re going to be here, so here’s something to read’.” [2]

Advertising doesn’t really work on mobile, so instead you get apps. Instead of trying to buy fragments of your attention, businesses give you a service proposition, which is useful enough that you’ll actively download it and give it your attention

Faris Yakob, strategist

That’s exactly the point – it isn’t just about standalone content, it’s equally important for a brand to hold attention in its own right. “Uber generates a great deal of attention,” says Yakob, referencing the app’s ongoing media shenanigans. “But every time I look at the app it’s updated and it’s better. It has the ability to create an experience within an app, and that ability is so unparalleled. I have hundreds of app, but that’s one that I remember, one that I really use. And not only does it provide a use and fit into life seamlessly, it does all these quirky things to hold people’s attention; like delivering ice creams or kittens, or whatever.” [2]

And apps are another way of maintaining a dialogue with consumers. “Mobile is challenging,” says Yakob “Advertising doesn’t really work there, so instead you get apps. Instead of trying to buy fragments of your attention, businesses give you a service proposition, which is somehow useful enough that you’ll actively download it and give it your attention. Which is ideal for businesses like banks and airlines, or any brand with which customers have a service-based relationship.” [2]

Plato feared writing, today we fear the internet Plato feared writing, today we fear the internet
tokyoform, Creative Commons (2007) ©

Insights and opportunities
“The Googles and the Facebooks of the world are not powered by oil, but by human attention,” says Yakob. But he notes that people are beginning to harbour concerns over how so much constant stimulation is affecting their attention. Given that our attention spans enable us to focus on specific tasks or stimuli to help us navigate daily life (“to stop us from being eaten by bears,” says Yakob), people are increasingly concerned about the implications of shorter – or more fractured – attention spans. [2]

“We’ve hacked it,” he explains. “And that’s why detoxing is a thing. That’s why meditation is such a huge thing right now, and mindfulness. People feel like their minds are splayed across too many things. It leads to a New York state of mind; persistent anxiety and busyness. And it’s not healthy. [2] With two thirds of Brits feeling stressed before they’ve even gotten out of bed, while anxiety disorders cost America $190 billion in healthcare fees annually, this state of mind is certainly apparent. [11][12]

But whether or not digital media and the internet are entirely to blame is questionable. “This is what happens every time new media is invented,” says Yakob. “Plato said writing was bad for the human mind, because it would dismantle our ability to remember. Which is true. But the upside is that we get to gain access to the memories of the entire human race.” And this is effect is far greater for older generations than younger. “Writer Douglas Adams said that anything that’s in the world when you’re born is just a part of the world,” he continues. “Anything that comes into the world when you’re a kid and a teenager is super-exciting, and you want to be involved. Anything that comes after you turn 30 scares the crap out of you, because your brain is less capable of learning new things.” [2]

The Googles and the Facebooks of the world are not powered by oil, but by human attention

Faris Yakob, strategist

But actually, this resistance to newness is potentially helpful to advertisers in certain spaces. “Look at television,” says Yakob. “In America, there are up to 23 commercial minutes per hour of TV. It’s not a very satisfying way to watch; it makes it really frustrating and a lot of people reject it. But according to Nielsen the over 50s watch an average of five hours of TV a day. They enjoy the stream, the news coming on, and so on. And this audience also has a lot of the money, especially in the UK and America.” In this sense, TV advertising still has a bright future; all because older generations are less prepared to change their consumption habits. [2]

Yakob envisages a future where there’s more direct negotiation between advertisers and consumers. “Your attention has value, my attention has value but in small amounts it has little value,” he says. “But this value is still translating directly into Google’s profit margin and we’re getting a free service out of it. Is there a way of maximising the benefits for both parties?” [2]

He uses the smart home as an example. “Consider the connected home in an internet of things dystopia, where your Nest detects you’re a middle-aged man going to the toilet four times a night and starts sending you prostate advertising,” he says. “It sounds hellish – not because it’s not useful, but because it’s because it’s invasive. Imagine if there were more algorithms in front of these things discussing some kind of valid negotiation.” [2]

Attention is hard to understand, and even harder to manage and control once you do. But while all businesses and advertisers clamour for it, Yakob makes an interesting point. “The process of getting someone’s attention has become mechanised,” he says. “It forgets that the point of the attention is to do something else; it’s all done just to get you to a place or a page.” [2] So what do you do once you’ve got someone’s attention?

Lore Oxford is Canvas8's deputy commissioning editor. She previously ran her own science and technology publication and was a columnist for Dazed and Confused. Since joining Canvas8 she’s investigated youth tribes and media consumption for brands like Guinness and MTV.

Related behaviours
Attention Economy: More stimulus means less time for bullshit.

Sources
1. ‘Our attention span is now less than that of a goldfish, Microsoft study finds’, The Independant (May 2015)
2. Interview with Faris Yakob conducted by author
3. ‘A pickpocket's tale’, The New Yorker (January 2013)
4. ‘Eric Schmidt: every two days we create as much information as we did up to 2003’, TechCrunch (August 2010)
5. ‘Why more choice isn’t always better’, Canvas8 (November 2013)
6. ‘This is what the Charlie Bit My Finger boys look like now’, Time (April 2015)
7. ‘Gangnam Style by Psy ‘breaks’ YouTube’ view counter: here’s what really happened’, Tech Times (December 2014)
8. ‘Popcorn Time: making piracy feel legal’, Canvas8 (March 2015)
9. ‘Account sharing is the norm for Netflix users’, Canvas8 (July 2015)
10. ‘AdBlocker: cleaning the internet of ads’, Canvas8 (September 2014)
11. ‘Two thirds of Britons feel stressed before they even get out of bed’, The Huffington Post (September 2014)
12. ‘Work anxiety kills thousands of Americans every year’, Bloomberg (January 2015)

Author
Lore Oxford