The Myth of Short Attention Spans

Myth of the Short Attention Span

How often have you heard someone say, “Well, you’ve got to keep your ads short – after all, people’s attention spans are so short these days!”?

Let’s just go ahead and burst that bubble right now! If you’ve bought into this myth in the past, you might be surprised to learn that the average online viewer commits 6.8 minutes to a typical video. This isn’t even an upper limit – viewers are increasingly focusing their attention on long-form video content, which makes the use of whiteboard scribing videos all the more appealing when it comes to conveying your company’s message in an effective way.

However, the fact that this myth still hangs around leads us to another thing that keeps your message tied down – the idea that videos can be no longer than 30-90 seconds, lest you risk losing viewers.

The result of this common myth is marketing videos that focus too heavily on “You” content. Because they have so little time to get your message across, these videos must cram your product’s benefits, features and value propositions into a snippet of time. As a consequence, these short videos pack too much information into a small space – trapping your message by being unable to provide any really valuable content.

So if 30-90 seconds seems too short to share all this information (and believe me, it really is!), just imagine what you could do if you were given the full 6+ minutes that online video viewers are already committing to content pieces that hold their interest?!

Creating “Them” Content

When you’re able to free your message using longer video clips, your company can transition away from this damaging “You” content and into more valuable “Them” content. “Them” content uses your message to both educate and entertain customers through the use of storylines that focus on the things your customers care about.

The use of the hand-drawn illustrations found in TruScribe’s whiteboard scribing videos take these benefits even further by adding a certain amount of warmth and authenticity to your message. As a result, you’re no longer cramming a quick sales pitch down your customers’ throats with your online videos – you’re instead telling stories, providing viewer valued content that will hold their attention for 5, 10 or even 15 minutes while sharing your company’s message in a safe and non-threatening way.

For years, we’ve heard the musing that people have short (and shrinking) attention spans.  This “insight” can come from a newscaster bemoaning youth trends. It can come from a politician criticizing social media or a content creator explaining that you’ll never get views if your content is too long. It’s been repeated to the point of cliché.  Yet, everyone still believes it—or do they?

Let’s start with what we know best: our own patterns.  Do you click away from any video or article that takes more than thirty seconds to consume?  Do you count your free time by the half-second, and challenge any video that would request your attention to prove itself instantly or be ignored?  

I’m guessing the answer is no, not really.  I’m guessing you, like me, watched several videos just this week longer than our supposedly minuscule attention spans.  YouTube alone proves that length isn’t a death sentence for video.  The YouTuber ContraPoints has made two videos in the last six months that are over an hour long. She boasts nearly a million subscribers with each video averaging over a million views.

There are dozens of other YouTubers with long-running videos that enjoy great success.  Also consider Twitch, a live-streaming platform that allows viewers to watch gamers and others stream for hours on end. The platform also lets viewers interact with streamers.  

YouTube isn’t pure passivity for the viewer either: they can comment, like, subscribe, and more.  Do these features stretch the attention span?  Maybe, maybe not. The bottom line is that both YouTube and Twitch have proven that long videos can be viable.

Let’s examine another industry for a perhaps more convincing proof: film.  Despite the warnings of media creators and critics, movies have yet to shorten their run times to the three minutes that authors like Megan O’Neill recommends for social media success.  I’m being facetious with my last comparison, to be sure. However, the point remains. Movies run, on average, anywhere from 80 to 180 minutes, or even longer, and we consume them voraciously.  

The beloved Lord of the Rings film series ended with a 201 minute movie. When released on home video, a widely purchased extended cut stretched that runtime to 252 minutes.  And then there’s the highest-grossing film ever made, Avengers: Endgame. That movie confidently ran 181 minutes without tiring out its legions of fans.

Okay, so people watch long movies, and they even watch long YouTube or Twitch streams.  Why, then, do they pay long-term attention to these things?  

John Spacey of highlights several things that increase our attention span. At the top of the list are things like entertainment, motivation, and self-discipline.  Put quickly and simply, our attention spans broaden when we are entertained, when we’re motivated to stick with a task, and when we know we must commit ourselves to something.

What does this mean for the content creator?  It means that if your work matters to your viewer or truly entertains them, you’ll have their attention.  Sure, a nine-hour movie isn’t likely to hold many people’s attention, but that’s because nine hours is a long time to remain entertaining.  It’s possible, in that way that building a rocket ship in your backyard is possible: technically.

What this really means for the content creator is that good content makes viewers care, and caring means watching.  As Spacey explains, entertainment, motivation, and self-discipline are all forms of caring.  One cares about entertainment because it’s fun; motivation, foundationally, is possessing a reason to care and act; and self-discipline is the conscious effort to do something that you clearly care enough about to pursue.  

Now, for a brief digression. If you can instill that caring and do it in a short amount of time, you’re in a great place.  The point of this discussion is not to say that longer content is better; it’s more of a counterpoint to the loud insistence that only shorter content has a chance at success.

YouTube wouldn’t give the opportunity to include multiple advertisements on videos ten minutes or longer if they didn’t believe in the model.  And, clearly, advertisers wouldn’t be interested if they felt they were wasting money on “too-long” videos.

There’s a reason short content is so celebrated. It goes beyond the arguments from the cottage industry of blog posts extolling brevity. The truly advantageous thing about short content is that it’s usually cheaper to make.  It takes less time and resources to make a thirty-second ad than a four-minute one.

Our fixation on our “short attention spans” is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If people are only making short content, then short content must be all that works. So you’d better make your content short.  Let’s try to unravel this myth.

People don’t want to waste their time.  They do appreciate brevity.  The shorter video might be an easier sell than the longer one, especially in certain contexts.  But that’s not because they have the sort of revulsion towards longer content that many think they do.

If your video, or your movie, or your content of any kind is a little long, worry about its quality before its length.  When your content makes people care, they’ll stick with you.  With a strong message well-communicated, you’ll notice that viewer attention spans are quite a bit longer than people think.

Here’s one last example from film school. I was once shown 24 Hour Psycho in a screening filled with about fifty students.  It’s an art film that slows down Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho to about two frames per second, which stretches the run time to a full day.  I won’t get deep into theory on the purpose of the piece, but suffice to say that nobody watched the whole thing.

I stayed in my seat for an hour.  About half the class had left before me, and many remained seated as I left.  This content, by conventional wisdom, should’ve driven every one of us of the room in less than five minutes.  So, why didn’t it?

It was unique.  That uniqueness was entertaining.  I wanted to learn something, to uncover the meaning, so I was motivated.  And I didn’t want my professor to think I was anxious to leave, so even when I thought I’d had enough, self-discipline kept me in my chair a little longer.  Good, worthwhile content can do that.

Trust your attention span, and the attention span of your viewers.   People prove every day that their attention spans are variable and surprising.  Create powerhouse content, and the viewers will come.