Capturing Your Customer’s Attention in the Digital Age
How long can you concentrate on a single task before becoming distracted? If you’re being honest, probably not long at all. That amount of time—aka your attention span—is said to have changed dramatically over the last 20 years, but the quality of human attention has also changed in many ways. What does it take to capture one’s attention, and what stimulants usually distract them? Awareness of modern attention spans is important for any business that engages in the online space and tries to garner attention there. If you’re communicating with customers in the digital world, keeping their attention is essential to the success of your business.
According to Microsoft research, the average attention span was 12 seconds in the year 2000 but then dropped to 8.25 seconds in 2013. What happened in that 13-year time span that could have caused this change? We can likely narrow it down to two main technological revolutions: smartphones and streaming media services. The ability to access the internet anywhere, scroll through multiple social media feeds, and stream commercial-free TV shows are the top suspects for depleting our attention capabilities. Although this isn’t to say that we’re no longer capable of focusing on a task for longer than eight seconds—there has even been some speculation that challenges the study—it does mean that tolerance and preferences have shifted drastically. Due to this shift, modern businesses have to adapt as they compete for limited attention.
Additionally, almost parallel to the drop in attention span is the rise of digital multitasking. According to a Deloitte survey, the average US household has 11 connected devices, and it goes without saying that simultaneous usage is a very common practice. Consider whether you’ve ever scrolled through your Instagram feed while streaming a show on Netflix or asked Alexa to play your favorite playlist while working on your laptop. This digital multitasking is breaking your allotted attention into fragmented parts. You missed the joke that Phoebe made about Ross while you were retweeting Nike’s stance on Title IX. This broken, flighty focus is yet another hurdle for marketers as they scramble to create a message that will both grab and hold the attention of their target customers. We believe it’s vital that every business, large or small, refine not just their marketing efforts but their products themselves to capture and capitalize on changing attention trends and turn what may seem like a limitation into an advantage.
A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words
As we continue to lead increasingly digital lifestyles, our appetite for a more stimulating experience grows. Reading paragraphs of plain text on a screen requires far more imaginative energy than watching a video or viewing interactive images. For example, would you rather receive a thread of lengthy text messages with someone explaining how they feel, or would you prefer a short sentence with a fitting emoji that quickly sums it all up? Are you more likely to read a five-page instruction manual or watch a five-minute instructional video?
The concept of the picture superiority effect was first established by psychologist Allan Paivio’s dual-coding theory in 1971, which hypothesized that the human brain is more likely to learn and retain knowledge through images rather than words. He asserted that “Picture stimuli have an advantage over word stimuli because they are dually encoded; they generate a verbal and image code, whereas word stimuli only generate a verbal code.”
Today, the technological advances of the digital age have only magnified the relevance of this theory. We’re constantly bombarded with fast-paced news stories, live social media threads, and subtle, customized advertising campaigns. Trends are coming and going faster than in any other era, so the need to stay informed and up to date is a perpetual necessity. The result is overstimulation, which is today’s biggest challenge for marketers. How do you grab the attention of a consumer that is flooded with stimulants throughout the day?
How to Market to an Overstimulated Audience
The answer to this digital age struggle can be found by capitalizing on the core ideas behind the picture superiority effect. The best way to catch and then maintain a customer’s attention today is through a clear and concise message with appealing visual aspects. Focusing first and foremost on user experience, making your content more engaging by telling a story that relates to your consumers’ wants and needs can help them to self-identify with your message.
Of course, it is always important to know your audience. Those with technical content can afford a more detailed explanation that requires more time, but most retail marketing will benefit from keeping it short and sweet. And whenever possible, choose video over text. Thankfully, one thing that hasn’t changed in customer-relationship success over the years is that using humor, when appropriate, often produces a positive impact in consumer retention, which circles right back to user experience. Dad jokes are still funny, even if they accompany an eye roll.
Immersive experiences with targeted, rich media are the best method for in-depth content to help consumers sustain their attention and prolonged focus. However, we all need to accept the fact that our consumers will have multiple apps or browser tabs open while viewing our content. They will get distracted at some point, but that doesn’t always mean that they won’t get the message. We can bring them back by using strong attention-grabbing tools like a call to action, gamification, or direct links to further content. These tools and more can battle today’s shortened and fragmented attentions and help to build better customer relationships.
On that note, keeping all online tools updated is imperative for customer attention value. How outdated are your business’s websites or apps? Have you optimized them to capitalize on shortened attention spans? It may be time for a refresh. We highly recommend refocusing your IT staff toward any customer interfaces to ensure a quality experience that is always up to date with the latest technology standards and trends. If your online tools are outdated and your IT staff is tied up with other responsibilities, customer interest and retention is bound to suffer as a result. Although privacy data protections might impact attempts to target customers, we also recommend building a targeted data platform behind all promotional efforts that can pinpoint and organize content that will best fit the ideal customer.
We may have reached the age where there is no longer such a thing as undivided attention, but do you really need 100% for more than eight seconds to deliver a message with substantial impact? We don’t think so. If you prioritize user experience, personability, and quality content, the right consumers will take the time to view and digest your message—even if it’s not snackable.