The dirty secret about online content and shrinking attention spans



This article was first published on Ragan’s PR Daily.

I’m tired of hearing marketers, journalists, and PR people use “shrinking attention spans” to explain why their content sucks.

In an article about the role of public relations in a rapidly evolving media landscape—with which I otherwise agreed—David Armano, managing director of Edelman Digital Chicago, noted the following.

“The people we want to reach move effortlessly across a media landscape about which they rarely make distinctions. Increasingly, they spend time on mobile devices, skimming content in ‘streams or feeds.’ The average consumer of media has the attention span of a squirrel on Ritalin. Getting them to pause to read anything more than a paragraph is becoming increasingly difficult.”

Shrinking attention spans and squirrel comparisons have become go-to arguments for why people no longer consume long-form articles or online videos lasting longer than two minutes. But this is a cop out. The real reason people don’t consume longer forms of media is that most digital publishers don’t want them to.

Shrinking attention spans are the symptom, not the problem 

Let me be clear, I am not arguing against the body of evidence supporting our diminishing attention spans. Dozens of studies by psychologists, neurobiologists, and educators conclude that the Internet is an environment that promotes perfunctory reading and distracted thinking.
Nor am I accusing anyone on the team at Edelman Digital of producing bad content. They are, in fact, trail blazers in the space.
I’m simply taking exception to the stance that digital publishers can no longer produce compelling long-form content because of shrinking attention spans.

Our shrinking attention spans are the symptom, not the problem.
The problem is that digital media is designed to be clicked, consumed, and spread as quickly as possible. Although the rallying cry is “content is king,” the reality of the Internet is that “clicks are king,” because clicks are what drive ad revenue.

The goal for digital publishers is not to produce well-written, thought-provoking articles and videos, but to create content that can be spread quickly and easily. How can readers quickly spread content if it takes them several minutes to read or watch it? Every single second a reader spends reading an article is one more second that could have been used to encourage the reader to share it, click through to the next piece of content, and repeat. Click, consume, spread.

In fact, it doesn’t even matter if the content is consumed, as long as it’s shared. Reading doesn’t generate ad dollars. So whenever you hear a media pundit proclaim, “Long-form journalism is dead!” what they mean to say is “Long-form journalism isn’t lucrative.”
It’s not that people won’t read long-form content, it’s that the nature of digital publishing has seemingly removed any incentive to produce content that takes longer than eight seconds to consume.

Healthier options are available 

As a result, digital media is being pushed further and further in the direction of becoming the fast food of content—it’s quick, cost effective, and not very good for you. But just as there is growing demand for healthy options at the drive-thru, there are significant changes taking hold in the realm of digital content that stem from the audience’s demand for quality.

For instance, Taulbee Jackson, founder and president of digital marketing firm Raidious, pointed to recent algorithm shifts in social and search platforms, such as Facebook and Google, as evidence of growing demand among consumers for better content. In a recent interview, he explained:

“Search results ranking algorithms like Google’s Panda and Penguin and Facebook’s EdgeRank were put in place to defend users against being exposed to bad content. Think about the ramifications for that. There is so much bad content that these companies felt it was necessary to help their users proactively filter out all the irrelevant noise. That is a big deal.” 

You can also look to movements like the one led by Mark Armstrong, founder of, as evidence of our growing demand for quality.
Longreads posts daily links to long-form journalism and magazine stories from publications including The New YorkerThe Atlantic, and Rolling Stone, as well as short stories, interview transcripts, historical documents and yes, even blog posts.

As the name suggests, a typical Longread is at least 1,500 words. The @longreads Twitter account has more than 82,600 followers, many of whom use the hashtag #longreads to share URLs to long-form stories they find around the Web.

Short doesn’t always equal bad 

I’m not suggesting that when it comes to content, long equals good and short equals bad. I, like everyone else, applauded Oreo’s profoundly simple, yet genius Super Bowl blackout tweet. But saying that people won’t—or as many arguments suggest—can’t process something more substantial than a picture of an Oreo followed by seven words because of their eroding attentions spans is simply untrue.

Marketers, PR people and journalists: Before you start dissecting what is an otherwise great piece of content just so that it can be consumed in the amount of time it takes to read this sentence, please reconsider. Your audience will read it. Then they will share it. And you will have engaged them in a way that few have.

Three Questions to Ask Before Pitching a Reporter

Stop right there. Before you even think about clicking send, ask yourself these three questions about your pitch.

#1 Would I click on this story?

The subject line of your email pitch can really make or break the entire story idea. Get inspiration by looking at the titles of previous stories or blog posts from the media outlet (and especially the reporter) you’re pitching. Looking at the list of the most emailed or most read stories on the publication’s website can spark good ideas too.

#2 Would their readers care about this story?

When creating your pitch, ask yourself if this is the type of story the media outlet’s readers would care about. If it’s even remotely a stretch, it’s time to go back to the drawing board and think of a different angle to take. In addition to thinking about the readers, make sure you’re thorough in your research so that you’re not pitching a type of story the writer would never cover. For example, you’d never want to pitch an entrepreneur profile story to someone who only writes advice-based columns for entrepreneurs.

#3 Would I read this pitch?

Time for a reality check. If you’re bored reading your own pitch, then the reporter will definitely be bored. Make it relevant to them, interesting and engaging from subject line to the final sentence. Consider using examples to illustrate what the company, service or product does to breathe more life into the pitch and make it sound less like a press release. Above all, make it as short as possible. No one has time to read a one page email pitch.

What’s the one question you always ask yourself before sending an email pitch? Is there one thing your most successful pitches have all had in common?

6 Reasons Your Pitch Isn’t Working

It’s no secret that journalists don’t love the stereotypical PR pro (hence Twitter handles like this), but the reality is public relations helps keep the news flowing. This is only the case, however, if you’re doing it right. Nobody appreciates a stale email, inappropriately addressed email, mass email … the list goes on. News and magazine staffs are declining year after year, which means a decrease in available journalists to share your pitch with and an increase in how annoying a pitch can be. Don’t ruin a relationship with a reporter before it starts because it will only make your job harder.

More often than not, 75 percent of the time they aren’t responding because of deadlines, not enough time or they just aren’t interested, but what about the other 25 percent? It’s your pitch, folks.

  1. There is a person at the other end. One of the biggest things journalists tend to notice is a personalized pitch vs. e-blast. They appreciate knowing you researched their beats and stories, read them and found a way to present your idea based on those findings. They have names, too, so be sure it’s the right name in your intro. Personalize every time!
  2. Wrong, try again. With shrinking newsrooms, it’s not always easy to figure out exactly who is covering what beats. But pitching the wrong person is a PR pro’s worst enemy. If you’re not sure, call the news desk and ask. They’ll appreciate the research more than the apology when you realize you pitched a food drive story to a tech reporter.
  3. “So what?” Pitching a story that has very little (or none at all) newsworthiness will get it sent to the trash. If your pitch has them saying “so what?” then forget it. Just forget it.
  4. Local, local, local! Even if a broad-angle story has relevance in a small market, they aren’t going to jump on the bandwagon unless there is a (very) strong local tie. This can also go both ways – a very local angle won’t make it on national media outlets without a bazaar element to the story or something to bulk it up.
  5. Third time isn’t always a charm. PR is about building relationships. If one story pitch doesn’t work, it’s good to go back with more compelling news or a new angle. However, if you’re second (third, fourth, fifth …) pitch is just as lame as the first, good luck getting a response … ever. Don’t constantly share irrelevant or uninteresting story ideas, because writers will start to write you off completely.
  6. Timing. If you’re working with a national client, chances are you’re pitching to people in different time zones. This rule is simple, don’t pitch a writer on the west coast at 5 a.m. his/her time and expect an answer. By the time they check email, your pitch will be long gone and buried in the depths of their inbox. Plan it out accordingly and know where each writer is based before you pitch.

PR pros can’t fear rejection. It’s just part of the business. But, why make it easy for a reporter to say no? Take your time with each pitch, because one bad pitch could haunt you for much longer than it would take to do it right the first time.

Have other PR pitching do’s or don’ts? Share with us on Facebook.

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