Engaging Consumers In The Era Of The Eight-Second Attention Span

According to a 2015 study from Microsoft, the average consumer’s attention span has dropped to eight seconds – one second less than that of a goldfish, the often-cited study revels in pointing out. Concurrent to this finding, marketers en masse have been retreating to create shorter content and front-loading it with calls-to-action while relying on mediums (e.g., video) that are reported to be more attention-grabbing. Short content for short attention spans, the logic suggests. 

But what about contradictory research that reveals how easy it is for us to binge watch a season of television on Netflix in four days? How is it we can only hold our attention for eight seconds, yet at the same time hunker down for multi-day marathons of “Breaking Bad?” We’re painting a contradictory picture of our consumer. 



The existence of both behavioral trends means we’re missing something fundamental to consumer psychology. That missing link is the role of self-selection, or self-imposed psychological filters. In an era of unlimited options, and attendant choice paralysis, consumers have developed acute methods to defend against information overload. They have become highly selective of the content, be it branded or unbranded, to which they devote their precious attention. While this might mean they pay little attention—maybe only eight seconds—to content they filter out, it also means they engage significantly longer with the content they actively let in. 

So that eight-second attention span we’ve heard so much about? Well, it might really be an eight-second filter. 

How does this affect us as marketers? To explore the impact of psychological filtering, we turned to Origin, our market research and data science practice, to run a study where each respondent (600 total) watched an ad and then answered a number of questions about the extent to which that ad made them more or less likely to buy the product.

The ads tested varied in length (0:15, 0:30, and a long-form video) as well as the extent to which they told a story or just focused on product attributes. To minimize variables, we selected a single category (office supplies) and found existing video executions from which to cut the different lengths; in one, the product featured in a larger, overarching story, while in the other it was simply presented within the context of a more traditional advertisement.

Across all variations, no ad was perceived as significantly more or less likely to drive product purchase. 

However, when we looked at the same variables in addition to those who scored high and low on the tendency to apply this eight-second filter, we saw a drastic difference. On average, across all conditions, those who scored higher on the tendency to filter were 63% more likely to purchase the product than those who scored low on the tendency for psychological filtering.  

Respondents more apt to filter also liked the ads more and were willing to spend 23% more on the product than those who scored lower. This same principle was observed on store visits (108% more likely), digital engagement (119% more likely), and word of mouth (93% more likely). So, while they might be quick to filter out content, they are way more likely to engage with content that they filter in. 

So much of the time, we as marketers focus our efforts on tinkering with the content mechanics (much like placing the logo within the first few seconds). In doing so, we’ve lost sight of the fact that effective content isn’t about shouting a message before we lose a consumer’s attention. It’s about sparking a receptive signal – whether through triggering an emotional reaction, introducing a narrative hook or prompting a sense of identity and recognition – so that they filter in the entirety of our story and take action. 

In this sense, we should all be fortunate that consumers are selective. As our study suggests, the more selective they are, the more receptive they will be to the content they find valuable. In that light, the eight-second filter is an opportunity and worthy challenge to overcome, whereby the starting point for every marketing effort is grounded in gaining a better understanding of our audience’s motivations and need states. Otherwise, we should get used to a world of blunt-object marketing, where the loudest and most cloying message is somehow thought to be the most effective. No thanks.



1 comment about "Engaging Consumers In The Era Of The Eight-Second Attention Span".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, September 19, 2017 at 4:56 p.m.

    Ken, the Microsoft study is basically meaningless without referrence to various types of content or stimuli. If we find something interesting---like a particula scene in a TV drama, we watch attentively; if not we are probably much quicker than ever before to cease paying attention---especially at home where there are so many other forms of media to turn our attention to or as we walk down a sidewalk, smartphone in hand, but suddenly see something that's more interesting than what's on our little screen. Same thing applies to ads. While many are skipped, we also scan the first few seconds of many commercials and if they are very amusing or if they feature a famous celebrity or if they are about an interesting new product we've been hearing about, we do pay attention; if we have seen the same ad five or six times in the past week or it's about something we dont use or care about, we quickly lose interest. So your point about filtering in or out makes sense and it's been recognized by TV programmers as well as advertisers for a long time---though some still don't seem to get it I'm sorry to say. I explored this and related subjects in my book, "TV Now and Then"  regarding how consumers respond to TV commercials and the axioms I noted still seem to apply.

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