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 Longreads.com, as evidence of our growing demand for quality. Longreads posts daily links to long-form journalism and magazine stories from publications including The New Yorker, The 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.