The long and short of it

Is what you've heard about short attention spans really true?

BY Tegan Jones
Content Director

Attention spans are shrinking. Or so the story goes.

Conventional wisdom dictates all those 10-second Snaps, tweets, GIFs and other infinitely snackable content formats have ushered in an age of distraction addicts who don’t do long-form.

But there’s no hard data to support that assumption. The Microsoft stat about people having an eight-second attention span that everyone likes to quote? Long story, but it doesn’t quite hold up, according to a 2017 BBC article. At least one psychology lecturer argues in the piece that measuring the “average” attention span is, in itself, an absurd proposition. “How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is,” Gemma Briggs of The Open University told the network.

People are perfectly capable of paying attention for extended periods—they’re just picky about what deserves their precious time.

And some content creators are taking note. The Atlantic, National Geographic and Time have been breaking out long-form social posts. Entrepreneur ran one Instagram post rhapsodizing candy queen Dylan Lauren for more than 330 words—and snared nearly 4,000 likes.

Going long has paid off for the epitome of short-and-sweet content—the tweet, which doubled in size last fall. Company co-founder Jack Dorsey told reporters in February that user engagement has increased following the change with “more mentions” and “more people returning to Twitter.”

This doesn’t give marketers a license to go all verbose. With a constant flood of controversial deep-dive think pieces and cute cat videos competing for their free moments, people want to know what they’re getting from an in-depth piece—before they commit. To clarify the payoff upfront, brands can take a page from the digital publisher playbook. Quartz at Work, for example, is running a multipart series sponsored by Mercedes-Benz exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Quartz plans to release four long-form digital issues—and pulls no punches about what to expect: “This is not a list,” reads the first sentence. “It’s a collection of insights from visionaries around the world aimed at anyone committed to empowering women.” If a user’s interest is piqued, he or she can scroll down the page to see short descriptions of the women and then click through to read the interviews of interest.

Some brands are sprinkling in a bit of star power to lure users into longer content. GE tapped news correspondent Alie Ward and MythBusters host Adam Savage for its In the Wild video series. The 11 episodes—the longest of which is just over eight minutes—give viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the labs, testing grounds and transportation hubs where the rubber of GE innovations hits the road. The most popular video, a six-and-a-half-minute look at how train engines are made, snared more than 1.1 million views.

Emotional storytelling can also inspire people to stay engaged with long-form content—as long as it hooks them from the start.


Emotional storytelling can also inspire people to stay engaged with long-form content—as long as it hooks them from the start. REI’s The Mirnavator, for example, opens with a series of insults slung at plus-sized runner Mirna Valerio. The 11-minute mini-doc shows the body shaming and harassment she suffered at the hands of strangers as she trained for a 50K race. Her story found an audience online—and the video went viral. It racked up more than 6 million views—80 percent of which came from organic traffic—and more than 50,000 shares across channels, according to Adweek, which awarded the video its ARC honor for best use of long-form nonfiction.

Although REI began carrying a greater range of clothing sizes in conjunction with the release of this video, Paolo Mottola, managing editor at REI, says this type of content intentionally exists outside the traditional sales funnel.

“We’re reaching people who have different needs and interests at different times,” Mottola told the Content Marketing Institute. “It’s not a linear relationship and not always about retail transactions with our business.”

published: October 04, 2018

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