Short Attention Span Case Study

In the digital age, where the news is limited to 140 characters and conversations take place in the form of emojis, our attention span has shortened. A recent study by Microsoft Corporation has found this digital lifestyle has made it difficult for us to stay focused, with the human attention span shortening from 12 seconds to eight seconds in more than a decade.

The rise of gadget use in the 21st century means our lives have become increasingly more digital at home, work, and school. In the U.S., nearly two-thirds of Americans are smartphone owners, with many users utilizing their phones for online access, according to a recent Pew Research Center poll. More than half of these smartphone users admit to using their phone in the past year to look up information about a health condition, but at what cost?

In the 54-page study, Microsoft sought to understand what impact technology and today’s digital lives are having on attention spans. The researchers collected data from surveys of more than 2,000 Canadians over the age of 18, who played games online to determine the impact of pocket-sized devices and the increased availability of digital media and information are having on everyday life. The researchers also monitored over 100 people’s brain activity with in-lab monitoring, using electroencephalograms (EEGs).

For the survey component, the researchers sought to gauge overall attention and gauge habits and perceptions by dividing the respondents into three equal sized groups based on performance — low, medium, and high attention — representing one-third of the sample. For the neurological component, participants’ brain activity was recorded and behavior was filmed while they interacted with different media and performed several activities across devices and in different environments. EEGs were used to measure their attention levels and activities were mapped against tasks and behaviors to view how attention varied by screen, task, content type, and structure.

The findings revealed human attention span has fallen from an average of 12 seconds in the year 2000 to just eight seconds today. Humans now have less of an attention span than a goldfish (nine seconds average). The decrease was seen across all age groups and genders in the study. Those in the age bracket of 18 to 34 had a 31 percent high sustained attention span compared to those age 55 and over at 35 percent. Meanwhile, males (33 percent) had a better attention span than females (31 percent). On a positive note, the researchers found the ability to multitask has significantly improved.

“Heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli — they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media,” according to the report.

The researchers did find generational differences when it came to mobile use. Young respondents were more likely to display addiction-like behaviors when it came to their devices. For example, 77 percent of people aged 18 to 24 responded “yes” when asked “When nothing is occupying my attention, the first thing I do is reach for my phone,” compared with only 10 percent of those over age 65. Out of the 18 to 24 age group, more than half admit to checking their phone every 30 minutes or less and over three-fourths used their portable devices while watching TV.

These findings coincide with a 2014 study by the British unit of advertising buyer OMD that found the average person shifts their attention between their smartphone, tablet and laptop 21 times in an hour. This suggests the human attention span is smaller due to the growing presence of these gadgets. The desire to be constantly connected can compromise attention but in exchange for being better multitaskers.

In the digital age, it seems the ability to stay focus is now a superpower. A weaker attention span could be the side effect of the brain having to adapt and change over time in the presence of technology. However, there are ways to improve our attention span amid the ongoing texts, tweets, and other interruptions.

1. Drink More Fluids

A 2012 study published in The Journal of Nutrition found mild dehydration can cause you to lose concentration. It is imperative to stay hydrated even when you don’t feel thirsty. Men should drink 13 cups of total beverages a day while women should drink nine cups, according to the Mayo Clinic.

2. Exercise

A 2013 study published in the journal PLOS ONE found increasing your fitness level can do wonders for your attention span. Men who were part of a Spanish cycling team responded seven percent much faster than the less fit group in a computerized task. Exercising the body is exercising the brain.

3. Avoid Electronic Devices

A 2013 study found an office worker gets only 11 minutes between each interruption, while it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption. It’s better to give a task a dedicated time slot to solely focus on your work and ignore the irrelevant. Technological devices that are within reach can easily lure you in to decrease your attention span.

So how many of you go through this article without checking your other electronic devices? 

When you have a few minutes of spare time, what do you do? Do you automatically reach for your smartphone and check your email or take a quick look at your Facebook news feed? More than three-quarters of people ages 18 to 24 do, and experts hypothesize that this easy access to instant information could be influencing our declining attention spans—for both digital and print content.

A 2015 Microsoft study reported that the average human attention span fell from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight measly seconds in 2013. If you’re keeping score, that puts mankind below the common goldfish—which, according to numerous cited statistics, has an attention span of about nine seconds. As a marketer, this means you need to embrace a new way of creating content to attract the attention of consumers.

Whether you’re writing an article for print or digital, take these steps to ensure your message still reaches the absent-minded masses.

1. Keep Content Short and Simple 

All content should be three things: useful, helpful, and relevant. But with readers scrolling the web or scanning the printed page for articles that attract their attention, it’s critical you keep the message simple and succinct. Whether you’re writing for print or digital, use plenty of engaging subheads, charts, infographics, and pullout elements. The very last thing people will read on a page will be the body of your article, so use these multiple entry points to get them engaged enough to want to continue reading.

2. Get to the Point 

When it comes to digital content, Chartbeat research about online reader habits revealed that nearly 33 percent of article readers spend 15 seconds or fewer on an article. Let readers know early on whether or not they need to stick around.

If people don’t find value fast, they won’t stay to provide you with a second chance.

3. Don’t Just Tell, Show

Whether or not you believe that a picture is worth 1,000 words, there is no denying that it is easier for the brain to consume and remember a single image over a list of 1,000 words. Chartbeat says that while most visitors to a site who read your articles will read about 60 percent of your article content, 100 percent will see your photos. Make your photos engaging enough to entice visitors to read your content.

At True North Custom, we could sit here and regurgitate statistic after factoid that points to how beneficial it is to populate your content with visuals, but that would do very little good considering Hubspot has already collected 37 stats that deal with visual content marketing.

4. Don’t Leave Them Waiting

No matter what type of content you’re pushing out, don’t keep anyone waiting. Another Chartbeat study revealed that about 10 percent of readers on a website won’t scroll down the page at all, so they’re looking for engagement at the top. Make your decks and ledes engaging, whether you’re writing for print or digital. Content is everywhere at the push of a button or the flip of a page. If consumers feel it’s taking too long to get to the relevant information, they will go somewhere else to find it.

Want more tips for best practices for reaching your target audience?

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