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Have Advertisers Fully Adapted to Dwindling Attention Spans?

31/03/2016 16:10 | Updated 31 March 2016

Do you think you'll read this blog until the end? It's 540 words long, about two minutes of your time.

A couple of minutes doesn't seem much, but readers are increasingly ignoring longer copy, as shown by the rising popularity of the hashtag TLDR - too long, didn't read. According to twitter data, it's being used 29% more than last year.

The rising popularity of #TLDR is a symptom of our declining attention spans. Microsoft researchers quantified the decline by surveying 2,000 participants in Canada and studying the brain activity of 112 others, using electroencephalograms (EEGs). Their key finding was that, between 2000 and 2013, average attention spans dropped from twelve seconds to eight seconds. In their headline grabbing claim, the average attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish.

What's hampering our concentration?

The principal cause of dwindling attention is the internet, and in particular mobile. We're constantly interrupted by e-mail alerts, tweets, Facebook updates or simply the ever-present knowledge that we're one click away from something better. We are, in T.S. Eliot's aptly prophetic phrase, "distracted from distraction by distraction".

We're now spending so long on the internet - on average 2 hours and 51 minutes per day, says the UK Online Measurement body - that this constant barrage of distractions is having a marked effect on our abilities. According to the Pulitzer Prize nominated book, The Shallows, we're losing the ability to concentrate deeply.

Is the internet changing our brains?

It seems a bold claim, but there's evidence that the physical make-up of our brains is changed by our actions. In the language of neurologists, our brains are plastic.

The most famous experiment to prove this was conducted by Eleanor Maguire, a neurologist at University College London. She took MRI scans of the brains of 16 London cab drivers and found that their posterior hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with spatial representation, was enlarged compared to the population as a whole. More conclusively, she found that the longer they had been taxi drivers, the larger the hippocampus; remembering vast amounts of spatial information had changed the physical make-up of their brains.

Marketers haven't reacted to decreased attention spans

While consumers have changed, marketers haven't. Today's ads require as much concentration as they always have.

At ZenithOptimedia we analysed hundreds of randomly chosen print and outdoor ads from 2010 and 2015 and found that the length of copy has remained constant. For outdoor ads, the median number of 12 words has remained the same over the last five years and for print headlines it has dropped only slightly, from 8 to 7.1 words. The situation is similar on TV. Running times haven't adapted to cultural changes: 30-second ads accounted for 49% of ads in 2015. Exactly the same as in 2010.

To maximise effectiveness, brands need to adapt to reduced attention spans. There are two tactics. Either, seek out the rare moments when consumers are forced to concentrate deeply, the cinema being a prime example, or accept that consumers will only be paying partial attention and brutally simplify the copy. Make it shorter and simpler. Brands that adapt will be at an advantage compared to those who don't.

Was that worth two minutes of your time?

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