Attention span: The millennium’s most critical 8 seconds


Last spring, Microsoft released a study purporting to show that Canadians’ attention span has shortened to a mere 8 seconds. It was all of 12 seconds when this millennium began. While Canada is not the same as any other country, this has to do with cerebral wiring, and that knows no nationality. So we presume that the average digital-world human now loses focus faster than a goldfish (which, if anybody asks, is 9 seconds).

This finding has implications for the voiceover community. So, if you’re still reading, please read on ...

Sometimes, eight seconds can seem like a pretty long time. For example, you can fit a surprising amount of information into a mere 10-second commercial. That’s even more true now, since digital recording and computerized broadcasting systems let you take audio right to the limit. (In analog, pushbutton days, the rule of thumb was to make the audio a second or so shorter, as a kind of “pad.”)

But eight seconds is also alarmingly small, especially when it comes to longer commercials and websites. Grabbing your audience’s attention and drawing them in becomes ever more important.

In both situations, it’s important to remember that, as you begin speaking, the audience is not committed to paying attention. With commercials, that’s always been obvious. The classic scenario is that your viewer/listener waits for that moment to go get a beer. These days, maybe it’s a kale smoothie, but regardless, they’re not hanging on your words. Even if they’re hearing them, they’re not listening to them. So you have just seconds to capture the listener’s – sorry, the hearer’s – attention. If you rush, mumble or swallow the first word, you may have lost or confused them. (A confused listener is virtually as bad as lost.) And now, when you do grab them, you may have just 8 seconds to draw them in.

That’s partly the responsibility of the writer and producer of the spot. But a large part of it is yours.

As for your website, people visit intentionally, right? So you already have their “ear,” as it were, correct?

Yes, they do, but no, you don’t.

As web usability experts will tell you, people are notoriously impatient when they’re browsing. As it happens, 8-10 seconds has long been the rule of thumb in how long people typically look at a home page before deciding whether to stay. We might assume that the web user’s attention span now has become even shorter.

Furthermore, this brevity of attention online is even more profound among experienced surfers, even when their experience has been fairly short and limited. A 2010 experiment found that browsing experience actually rewires the frontal cortex, and that as little as an hour a day for a week was enough experience to generate this effect. You might say this trend is among Millennials, but more likely it applies to online users of any age.

In some ways, the phenomenon can be a benefit to the individual – it increases a person’s ability to shift visual focus and absorb bits of information from a wide variety of sources. But at the same time, it interferes with concentration and integration into long-term memory.

And from your point of view as a website owner and marketer, the effect can be downright concerning.

More than ever, your website’s home page must communicate your personality, genre and benefits virtually at a glance, and your demo links should be seen just as fast. Draw your visitor in. A clear value proposition can hold visitors well past 20 seconds. The same applies to emails, your “elevator pitch,” and any other communication. (See Jakob Nielsen’s site, below, for more on just about any website usability issue.)

Are we being alarmist? Yes, but justifiably so. Is this all universally true? No. As Microsoft’s paper itself points out, “there’s a lot of variance beyond the <30 year old digital natives.” (And, true to the premise, apparently Microsoft is reluctant to overwhelm their reader with hyphens and fully spelled-out words.) Also, some might say that Microsoft has a particular axe to grind – they want marketers to use “more creative” ways to engage consumers.

But whether 8, 9, 12 or 20 seconds, capturing attention is always an important drill. Nobody ever sold anybody who’s not paying attention, or by being boring (or sounding bored). However you deliver a script, however you market to prospects, keep your own mind open for ways to quickly engage them.

ADDITIONAL READING:

The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains By Nicholas Carr, 2010.
http://www.wired.com/2010/05/ff_nicholas_carr/2/

How Long Do Users Stay on Web Pages? By Jakob Nielsen, 2011.
https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-long-do-users-stay-on-web-pages/

Attention spans By Consumer Insights, Microsoft Canada, 2015.
https://advertising.microsoft.com/en/WWDocs/User/display/cl/researchreport/31966/en/microsoft-attention-spans-research-report.pdf

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