Adults in the United States spend 12 hours a day consuming media—12 hours. The bulk of that time is spent with TV, mobile devices and on the internet (desktops and laptops), though radio, newspapers and magazines still get a few minutes here and there.
Is our fragmented focus on media reflective of shortening attention spans? It’s no secret that humans have a harder time sticking with things than we used to. Perhaps that’s why advertisers can get away with squeezing more commercials into TV shows and lengthy online articles have only a handful of readers by the end.
For content creators, this means greater competition and a departure from long-accepted methods. It can be a tough shift, but is necessary if you want to stay viable.
Why Are Attention Spans Shorter?
It’s sort of a chicken-and-egg situation: Did attention spans shorten and lead to more fragmented media? Or did media technology pull our attention in too many directions, eventually making it difficult to stay in one place for any length of time?
Research suggests the latter. In 2015, Microsoft did a consumer insights study on attention spans. Among the main points of the study are these:
- The human attention span is decreasing, dropping from 12 seconds in 2000 (around the beginning of digital technology becoming commonplace) to eight seconds in 2013.
- Brain plasticity allows our brains to adapt to new and changing situations in our environments (like the fast pace of technology advancement and use).
- Being able to focus on what’s important (moving and attention-grabbing) is a survival skill humans developed thousands of years back. These days, that focus shifts from threatening predators to lit-up screens.
- While it’s true our attention spans are dwindling, brain plasticity means that we’re also getting better at responding to multiple stimuli and processing their information.
- The top factors impacting attention span are media consumption, social media use, technology adoption rates and multi-screening behavior.
- So, our attention spans are shorter because our brains are adapting to a world with more stimuli.
Although the findings about technology, our changing brains and attention span are true for all ages, younger people are more likely to use technology heavily (77 percent of adults under 25 in the Microsoft study said they reach for their phones when nothing else has their attention).
What does all of this mean for developing brains?
A Pew Research survey found that 87 percent of middle and high school teachers feel technology is creating a generation of easily distracted students. On the upside, 75 percent of those same teachers report that the technology has been good for research habits.
So tomorrow’s adults might have even shorter attention spans, but will likely be able to quickly research everything from clothing trends to taking out a mortgage. And you’re going to want your content to show up when they do.
How Does This Impact Content Creation?
In the intro, I referred to a Slate article that highlights how few readers stick with a long piece on the web (most only read about 60 percent). As writers, many of us feel frustration with shortened attention spans, and what it means for our well-researched and thoughtfully written articles.
Of course, we don’t necessarily make more money when people read everything we write. Further, readers often share and tweet pieces they haven’t read beyond the headline or first few paragraphs. Still, you can’t count on success with sensational headlines and blind shares —not with all the competition out there.
Something working against us is a habit of clinging to outdated metrics of online engagement. Counting clicks and shares might have its place, but doesn’t usually reflect how much people are actually absorbing the material.
These days, you have to earn and maintain reader attention to survive algorithms and metrics. Fortunately, there are actions you can take. Let’s talk about them next.
How to Write for 21st Century Attention Spans
No matter how old school you are when it comes to writing, it’s time to accept that short and relevant is often the new reality (I’ll talk about the continued value of in-depth articles in a minute). Here are a few tips from the Content Marketing Institute, Hubspot and my own experience for staying competitive:
- Write for your engaged readers—that handful of folks who are truly interested in the topic, need your expertise and might even comment or share—and offer real solutions.
- Keep the skimmers in mind by using subheadings, bullet points, consistency, etc. to drive that main point. Observe the best practice of using heading tags (<h1>, <h2>, etc.) to present structure in your content. The Google SEO guide talks about how to use these appropriately.
- Embrace the power of (quality) images and include them. We like to use Makerbook to find free images, and Canva to make them unique with text. It’s ideal to have a cover image right under the headline or first paragraph, and then other images throughout if needed for clarifying text (graphs, examples, etc.) or to break up long articles.
- Strive to make it interesting, even if you’re not writing on “sexy” topics (travel, celebrities, food …) by being specific and even funny. To find your humor groove, try writing some Buzzfeed-style headlines. You can also keep swipe files as a reference for project ideas when you’re feeling uninspired.
- Write they way you talk, and avoid buzzwords and business speak. Forbes made a large list of commonly used and usually annoying jargon.
- Break up the content into short, concise sentences and paragraphs, even to the point of paragraphs being one sentence long.
- Include quotes from known experts and surprising facts/statistics. Be sure to only link to quality sites with information you and your readers can trust.
It goes without saying that original, quality content is a must. Long gone are the days of keyword stuffing and rewriting someone else’s work if you hope to engage readers.
Writing for a Mobile Layout
As we’ve said before, going mobile is crucial. The thing about mobile is that screen space is extremely limited, so not only do you have to design aesthetically pleasing and navigable pages for that environment, but you want nothing that wastes space.
Please understand this doesn’t necessarily mean writing short articles, but writing concisely. Keep sentences tight and get rid of fillers. The Content Marketing Institute has a nice guide on writing content that engages mobile readers.
The Continued Value of In-Depth Articles
Not for a minute are we discounting the in-depth article. In fact, Google has an “In-depth articles” feature for broad topic search results. It’s an algorithm meant to highlight high-quality content for deeper research. That last link offers some tips for optimizing your site for the Google feature. Though keep in mind that showing up in this feature in the search results seems to be getting harder. Though that shouldn’t deter you from writing long-form content.
Copyhackers has a helpful (and long!) piece on the benefits of writing both long and short articles. It comes down to this: Unless you have a large fan base (the sort of following Seth Godin or Disney enjoys), succeeding with short content is going to be extremely difficult. Long content, around 2,000 words, actually does best when it comes to ranking, socials shares and holding reader attention.
Of course, length isn’t a recipe for success on its own. You’ve got to do research, write quality content of substance and do it on the regular. Present it with images and in a way that’s easily skimmed, and you might find that sweet spot.
21st Century Readers: Interested and in a Hurry
Our overall point here? Get to the point. Whether it’s with amazing images and a few hundred words or deep research that takes 2,000 words, make every bit of content count. (I realize this is actually a long article. Our rule of thumb is to say as much as needed to be useful, and maintain a good mix of long-form and brief articles in our library of content.)
Your readers are busy, and so are you. Make the most of your time and theirs by creating content that grabs attention and keeps it, and maybe they’ll read all the way down to the comment section.
What’s been your experience or research on long-form versus shorter articles? Let me know in the comments below!