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The attention span of the average American has dropped drastically over the past decade from 12 minutes to a staggeringly short eight seconds, according to a recent research study.  By comparison, the average attention span of a goldfish has been clocked at nine seconds.

Our diminishing attention spans and concentration levels cause us to forget vital details. Twenty-five percent of all surveyed teens forget birthdays and anniversaries of close friends and family members, while 7 percent of all adults say they forget their own birthdays from time to time.

An alarming side-effect of our instant gratification, “always on” society, with the increasing pressures of work and family, is that we can no longer focus on the task at hand, resulting in spikes in the frequency of household risks like stove-top pans boiling over, baths overflowing, or freezer doors left open, according to a recent Pew Internet study.  On the  positive side, the study also shows that students coming through the U.S. schools system benefit greatly from instant access to huge caches of information from numerous sources. However, it also shows that students’ attention spans, concentration levels and desire for further depth of knowledge on specific topics have also diminished.

TV commercials are shrinking too, to match our shorter attention spans. The average television ad is now just 15-seconds long, having replaced the once popular 30-second spot, which took over for the full-minute commercial that was the standard decades ago.

What this means for viewers is that more ads are being shown in more rapid succession during each commercial break. For advertisers it’s a way to save money, but research shows that shorter ads are actually just as effective as longer ones in terms of holding attention. One explanation is that when things are moving very quickly, the brain lights up and soaks the messages in automatically, as opposed to turning it off when looking at longer versions of the same message.

So, what does this shortening attention span mean for marketing and businesses today? It’s more important than ever to engage consumers quickly and interactively in ways that weren’t possible and/or necessary in years past.

Less can and should mean more if you want your message absorbed by the average consumer. Keep these four tips in mind to assure your message is on point:

Focus on what’s most important. Start with the most important messages and then minimize or delete the rest. With all the “noise” out there competing for our consideration, keep in mind that the attention span of the average adult is about the same as a goldfish.

Keep messages succinct and on-point. Shorter is better, but always make sure every line is of value to the overall message. And limit the number of choices you give to users. This reduces the amount of mental effort, and therefore maximizes your mission.

Keep it simple. Messages that are easily understood and compelling to watch tend to work best. We’re told that pictures are “worth a thousand words,” so keep that in mind when creating content that is both interesting and brief.
Establish trust and value by not over-saturating. With email boxes constantly flooded, it’s important for consumers to understand that your brand is one to be trusted and therefore worth at least a glance or mouse click.

Most big brands have decided to uphold the new standard of “short-attention span theater,” but there are exceptions. Take world-famous luxury brand, and French high-fashion designer, Chanel. This brand has actually chosen to go the other way and challenge the more concise standard of storytelling by producing a full 18 minutes of film to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its brand.

For these “aspirational” luxury customers willing to pay more for high-end goods and services, long and slow may be the better way to satisfy their needs, seduced by the brand and a perceived association to wealth and status. But for the more mainstream consumer, we need to grab them quickly, or not at all.

Shorter attention spans are making us work harder to win and keep the attention of consumers. But is that really such a bad thing if we need to choose our words better and communicate more concisely?  I don’t think so. But if you don’t believe me, ask your goldfish.

About Deborah Baldwin

Deborah Baldwin is the Marketing Manager for SCA AfH Professional Hygiene North America, and serves as Office Building segment expert and primary link between Product Management, Marketing and Regional Sales driving innovation and market insight. A member of BOMA International and key collaborator, Deborah's background is in marketing and communications, having worked as a professional content provider and creative problem-solver for over a decade.