There’s no denying it: people these days have short attention spans.
Ever since Facebook and Twitter debuted their feeds way back in 2006 (when Miley was still on the Disney channel and before she ‘invented’ the twerk) the concept of continually streaming updates has come to define how we consume information.
We don’t want to sit down anymore and dedicate time to the prehistoric idea of reading a newspaper. We want to be able to dip in and out of the social media stream whenever, wherever and however we want. As we embrace the mobile era and overcome the limitations of the so-called small screen, being able to digest information on-the-go has become our number one priority.
In a recent Keynote talk, Gary Vaynerchuk asks his audience a simple question, how many people get pissed when someone phones them? At this point around 70% of the audience raised their hands. Ask yourself the same question and if you are honest your own answer may surprise you.
So why is this? Because time is money.
Time is money
Now, this cliché has been claimed by sleazy businessmen and cheesy door-to-door salemen across the world but when I say time is money, I’m not talking literally, in terms of revenue potential, rather that it has become a currency in itself.
We choose who we spend it with, what we spend it doing and constantly prioritize the distribution of this wealth. And in 2014 the purse strings on time have never been tighter.
According to The Associated Press our attention spans have shrunk by 50% over the past decade. The average attention span in 1998 was 12 minutes, fast forward 10 years to 2008 and it is down to just 5 minutes. To put this into perspective the average attention span of an American in 2013 was 8 seconds. The average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds, so if goldfish could talk they would be saying “you have the attention span of a human.”
Social platform Vine has capitalized on this short attention span and challenged users to produce creative content within a 6 second window and it is not just the small screen that is influenced by decreasing user attention.
Out of 2,000 people surveyed by Adroit Digital only 51% consume live TV with 68% of viewers saying they choose to consume video content from YouTube and 49% from Netflix. We want to watch TV when we want and we prefer to binge on our favourite TV shows than wait a week between episodes. Deciding instead to watch back-to back episodes of Mad Men until the sun comes up.
Finding the balance
It’s all about finding the balance. Nobody has mastered the feed better than Twitter and Facebook. Both companies have tinkered and tweaked their feed mechanism, experimenting and discovering techniques to deliver stories that users actually care about. We know that attention spans are shrinking so the challenge now becomes not only how to deliver consumable information but how to get people to ‘spend’ their time on your content.
In the same Associated Press report 17% of reduced attention spans were the result of decision overload – a problem inherent in endless feeds. This has resulted in a series of computations and algorithms that are becoming as important to a users online experience as Google’s search algorithm.
Twitter has added alternative timelines and other features to help people refine their feed without limiting their connections. Twitter devised the Discover timeline to target users who haven’t taken the time to curate a customized set of people to follow. It uses Twitter’s interest graph to display tweets that will interest you regardless of whether or not you follow the author.
In addition to these alternative timelines, Twitter constantly analyses posts to determine their relevance to specific search queries. It takes into account the nature of the tweet and if it is text, photo or video to provide a mix of content types. Other factors such as timeliness also contribute.
Facebook places a similar importance on providing a customized user experience. The new algorithm takes into account a multitude of different factors including a user’s previous reaction to similar stories, viral behaviour, whether they engage with text, image or video updates and even their relationships, giving more weight and influence to content liked by close friends over acquaintances.
All of these changes signify a move towards a highly personalized news feed.
Which brings us to the main criticism and potential downfall of this personal social media paradise where you have the power to see what you want; Ads.
A place for ads
Ads are here to stay. Facebook have decided that placing ads in a user’s feed is a crucial revenue strategy, Twitter have followed suit and Instagram have announced that they are slowly rolling out ads on their platform. With Facebook the ads are displayed using a parallel system so mixed and organic signals are kept separate.
There is the hope that ‘sponsored stories’ will become as relevant and welcome in the newsfeed as stories from friends and family. Ad packages such as website custom audiences make it easy for brands to target all visitors to their website and with it comes the risk of flooding users who may have visited your website once, by accident with irrelevant ads.
However, it also offers brands the opportunity to be clever and tailor a mixture of mirco messages to select groups of fans or website visitors, delivering an ad message that is more relevant and engaging than a generic one-ad-fits-all mentality. Whether brands will adapt to this way of thinking en-masse still remains to be seen.
In short (no pun intended) we have less and less time in which to captivate our target audience, placing more importance on producing high quality, relevant content (and ads) that users will actually want to see in their newsfeed.
If you’ve managed to read this far CONGRATULATIONS, the goldfish would be proud!
Over to you
What do you think? How are you winning the fight for attention?