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Overexposed & Underwhelmed: 5 Tips for Marketing to Short Attention Spans

Apr 20, 2016 8:26:25 AM

Imagine being invited to a party whose guest of honor is someone you’ve been dying to meet. The place is packed. The cacophony of voices is deafening. Throughout the evening you make many attempts to introduce yourself, but you only get a few measly seconds of eye contact before their attention is drawn away by hordes of others trying to do the same thing.

You raise your voice; you make funny faces; you jump up and down. Nothing works. Frustrated, your mind turns to tricks that would strain the social contract, and possibly get you thrown out of the room—even arrested.

Driven to distraction
Here is the dilemma faced by marketers today: a world of hyper-distracted people boggling from a wealth (or is it a welter?) of potential fixations—TV; print; radio; outdoor; web; plus, perhaps most importantly, mobile marketing.

Since the birth of human commerce, sellers have had to conjure ever more interesting ways to capture the attention of their audience.  Yet developments like digital media, the 24-hour news cycle and the ubiquity of smartphones have both changed the game and radically changed what is considered typical human behavior.

Bottom line:  a creative marketer’s job has become tougher than ever.


Okay, so goldfish are more attentive
Just how distracted are we? Consider the following:

  • Experts say the average person in the U.S. spends over eight hours a day consuming media,[1]  experiencing between 3,000 and 5,000 brand exposures.[2]
  • In 1976, there were about 9,000 products in the typical grocery store. Now there are over 40,000 by some estimates.[3]   (Who needs five kinds of mango chutney?)
  • 84 percent of smartphone and tablet owners say they use their devices while watching TV[4] 
  • Typical mobile users check their phones more than 150 times per day [5]

Not surprisingly, a recent study by Microsoft showed that the average human attention span has dipped from an already uninspiring 12 seconds in 2000 to about eight now.  In the same study, goldfish scored better at around nine seconds.[6]   Presumably, they would beat us all in a stare-down contest.

Up your game, up your chances
Here are 5 tips for marketing to short attention spans by punching through the clutter and therefore having a greater impact.

  1. Be provocative if not disruptive
    This may go against the grain of your brand and your own sensibilities. But to effectively compete with the multitude of voices and venues in the marketplace today, you will probably need to dial up the tone and manner of your advertising.
  2. Develop a strong brand presence and value proposition
    You probably won’t accomplish this in one or two exposures, nor through a single channel. But by providing valuable messages and offers consistently and tastefully, you create strong brand equity, forge a trust relationship with your audience, and are more likely to keep their attention. Strive to be the wheat amongst the chaff.
  3. Write great headlines
    Some 80 percent of viewers will read your headlines and skip the body copy. So make sure your headlines are punchy, provocative and, even more importantly, clearly convey benefits. You have but a nanosecond to get your point across.
  4. Increase frequency
    To get noticed in this new marketing milieu, you simply must. Why? Because your competition is pinging your audience 24/7.
    Doing it right requires a contact strategy plus a well-considered content calendar. Test and measure to find a balance point that holds your audience’s interest without turning them off with too many communications.
  5. Keep it simple and scannable
    Think of your communication holistically—a message delivered in words, pictures, color and layout. Hone your messaging points down to a few simple ones, and use all the foregoing elements to tell the story, limiting copy whenever possible.

Short of a meteorite wiping out humanity, the universal attention problem is not likely to go away.  So we’d all best get with it.

Fortunately, with digital and social marketing driving the trend, it’s relatively easy to constantly taste-test and refine your “recipe” to keep your audience interested. At least for a few seconds.



[1] Austin, Anne, et al.  Media Consumption Forecasts 2015.  ZenithOptimedia.  June 2015.

[2] Petrecca, Laura.  Product Placement—You Can’t Escape It.  USA Today. 10/10/06.

[3] Levitin, Daniel.  The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.

[4] Nielsen.  What’s Empowering the New Digital Consumer.  2/10/2014.

[5] Meeker, Mary, et al.  2013 Internet Trends.  Kleiner Perkins Caulfield Byer.  5/29/2013.

[6] Microsoft Corporation, 2015.

Michael Walton

Written by Michael Walton

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