If you’re reading content marketing blogs (and I assume you do since you’re on this one), one of the most oft used quotes you’re likely to see is something like “readers today have a short attention span” or “studies show that today’s readers have an attention span of a goldfish”. These blogs then proceed to tell you how you should “write in simple, short sentences and paragraphs”. And as a good and diligent student of content marketing, you oblige, making sure your paragraphs don’t extend over three or four rows and your sentences have no more than seven or eight words in them or overly technical words that might confuse and break the supposedly fragile brains of your audience.
Well, I have a problem with that approach and way of thinking. To me, this is akin to considering your audience semi-functional idiots who get way too easily distracted. That’s not the case at all. The problem here is not that your readers can’t focus on something. If that were the case, no one would be able to do anything. Kids wouldn’t be able to learn anything in school, adults would be incapable of completing their jobs, our conversations with friends would be cut to only a few words and so on. That’s obviously not the case. Most of us function normally (at least in that regard). Sure, there are some with short attention spans, but that’s different. It’s called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and this affects between three and five percent of school children. But that’s not what we’re’ talking about here.
Here’s we are talking about adults (keep in mind that ADD is diagnosed only in children before the age of seven). Adults don’t get ADD. So how come they have can’t read your content for more than eight or nine seconds as so many news media outlets have reported?
How the Short Attention Span Study Got Picked Up by the Internet
The whole thing has to do with a supposed Microsoft study conducted back in 2015. Of course, since this is Microsoft (or at least the study carried its name, more on that latter), big publications such as the National Post, New York Times, Guardian, USA Today and many others picked it up and reported the story. From there, naturally, the study spread to smaller websites and, before you know it, pretty much every blog on the Internet that covers content marketing or was quoting the study and the thing was all over the Internet.
So what did this now famous study say? It claimed that our average attention span had shortened from 12 seconds in 2000 to just 8 seconds in 2013. Meanwhile, the study says, the average goldfish has an attention span of 9 seconds in average. We have a shorter attention span than a goldfish!
But the problem here was that no one really looked critically at the study. Everyone just took it at face value and ran with it. The study, which included some 2,000 Canadians, didn’t really came from Microsoft, but from another, independent source – Statistic Brain Research Institute. That in itself doesn’t mean much, other than showcasing the laziness of the people who reported on the study. After all, despite it not being originally from MS, the study could still be valuable.
This of course, didn’t deter so many bloggers to try and find a culprit for this supposed short attention span. And they did find one in the people’s overexposure to social media. Now that they could point their finger at someone or something, that’s half the problem solved already. The other half of solution was to make sure their content was something a 5-year old kid could understand. Never mind who their audience might be. Write like you’re writing for elementary school children. Just don’t mind who your audience really consists of and if it perhaps include professionals, managers, academics and so on. They all have a short attention span after all.
Missing the Point
They all miss the point here and the reason why people are so quick to leave their websites and why editors don’t publish their content. It’s not because of some shortened attention span. It’s because they’ve seen it a dozens times before. What you ‘re telling them is really nothing they haven’t heard or read before. Those 10 tips to improve your SEO or 9 ways to promote your blog? Heard it many times before. Once the reader sees the title, the best you can hope for is a quick scan (which incidentally takes about 8 seconds) and then they jump off.
How we apply our attention to different tasks depends very much about what the individual brings to that situation. We’ve got a wealth of information in our heads about what normally happens in given situations, what we can expect. And those expectations and our experience directly mould what we see and how we process information in any given time.
There are so many things that are trying to grab your attention and your brain simply doesn’t have the time (or will) to handle everything. So what happened is that humans have become incredibly savvy at quickly determining if something is of interest to them or not. Meaning, if the reader spends only a few seconds on your page, that’s not their fault. It’s yours. Your content doesn’t interest them. It sucks. Stop creating content that sucks and stop blaming readers for not wanting to waste their time on it. Give them something with an interesting story they can invest themselves in, instead of the same old. Then you won’t have a problem with their “short attention span”.