By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist, and Jake McKenzie, Chief Executive Officer
Eye tracking studies have discovered that many ads fail to even attract a consumer’s gaze, much less capture their attention long enough to create a functional connection to the product/brand. These findings beg the question of why; Is it because the modern population is experiencing a shrinking attention span?
According to a 2015 report issued by Consumer Insights of Microsoft Canada, the average human attention span decreased by nearly 34% since the year 2000. In this report, it was claimed that the attention span of today’s consumer has fallen from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, a full second less than…wait for it…a goldfish, who is purported to have an attention span of 9 seconds. While this rather startling statistic quickly made the headlines around the world, it didn’t take long for researchers to question its validity, and it turns out that the attention spans of both goldfish and modern humans were being unfairly portrayed. The correct answer—like most topics dealing with human psychology—is a little bit more complicated.
Contrary to the report mentioned above, researchers largely agree that the ability to focus one’s attention is not in danger of fading away, or even that it is alarmingly low compared to any other time in history (goldfish too seem to be in fairly good shape). What the research does show, is that attention spans are dependent on the motivation inherent in the saliency/presentation of the subject and as such, they can range from milliseconds to hours. Which again iterates the nature of attention, now more than ever, it is contingent on an individual’s search for meaning.
Our rapidly expanding digital world provides us with a cornucopia of avenues to engage in education, work, and leisure. Day and night, these pursuits vie for our attention, and in some cases, they are literally right at our fingertips and in our pockets 24 hours a day. Moment to moment, we are attending to more information now than at any point in human history. So, it makes sense that we are intuitively refining our search parameters as a response. The report comparing humans to goldfish was, to a degree, reflecting this new reality. With so much information to evaluate, we have begun to streamline the process, which means less time is being spent on information that does not fall within these increasingly sophisticated search parameters. Marketers need to be aware of this, consider the mediums they are using and adjust their strategy for each one accordingly.
In general, are there ways to break through or better utilize these refined search parameters? Studies in human psychology can help keep us on track. A recent study published by the Institute of Education Sciences looked at the effects of different approaches of storytelling on comprehension and the level of attention received. Researchers found two main effects of their manipulation. First, participants reported greater comprehension/recall for the material when researchers emphasized the cohesive nature of the information about to be provided (e.g., information coming from a storybook vs. story cards). Secondly (and like other research), researchers found that mediums combining audio and visual cues resulted in the highest rate of focus and attention among the participants. By using multiple sensory cues and framing the information upfront as a cohesive narrative, researchers were able to increase both attention and understanding of the targeted material. In other words, they provided a well-lit path that facilitated, rather than hampered or distracted, the participants’ search for meaning.
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