The fastest way for a speaker to lose my attention is to compare people to goldfish. But what does that have to do with written content?
At my first marketing conference, I heard four different speakers reference the same stat—that humans had an average attention span of just 8 seconds. A full second slower than a goldfish.
I’ll admit, it grabbed my attention the first time I heard it. And it seemed to make sense to a lot of people around me. People are constantly distracted by information overload on their phones, leaving little room for deep focus.
For content marketers, that meant straying from written content in favor of video, audio, and the revolving door of social media trends. Every emerging medium and channel has its merits. But that doesn’t mean more traditional forms of content are dead.
It’s been a few years since the goldfish narrative exploded. But it came up again at a more recent conference and got me thinking.
Give your audience more credit than goldfish. Written content isn’t going anywhere.
Don’t be a Content Marketing Goldfish
The original goldfish comparison came from a Microsoft study that was covered by major news outlets like the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, The Guardian, and others.
That study found that most people lose concentration after about 8 seconds and that “heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli—they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media.”
Combine this idea with the fact that by 2021 82% of internet traffic will be video-based, and suddenly written content is looking like a poor investment.
But we should be more suspicious about these facts and figures.
(Especially given the fact that Facebook was caught inflating video stats for advertisers.)
While people are certainly reading less than they used to, the increase in video traffic mirrors the general increase in media consumption. We’re streaming TV shows, creating video content on social, and watching YouTube videos for both information and entertainment—all with any time, anywhere access thanks to mobile.
All of this video content satisfies the goldfish’s attention span. But as content marketers, we need to think bigger than goldfish.
It’s amazing how long our attention spans get when we’re doing something that truly engages us. Blogs like Wait But Why and Brain Pickings publish heavy, long-form articles that ignore the goldfish attention span narrative. And guess what—millions of people read those articles every month. There’s no reason we can’t find that same success with content marketing.
According to Dr. Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at The Open University, attention spans are “very much task-dependent. How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is.”
Rather than blaming short attention spans for our content marketing problems, we need to create content that’s worth focusing on. Whether it’s video, audio, or written content, people will take the time to engage with your work if it’s worth their time.
Written Content and the Learning Culture
The idea that written content can’t match the engagement of new mediums isn’t new. Even back in 2009, Copyblogger’s Sonia Simone was questioning whether or not writing was obsolete.
In today’s learning culture, no medium can actually become obsolete. Video can’t kill the
radio podcast star—and it can’t kill great writing, either.
As workplace skillsets continue to change rapidly, content marketers have an opportunity to become trusted resources for continuous learning and improvement. Rather than chasing new mediums because of goldfish attention spans, we have to focus on the value written content brings to both our businesses and our customers:
- Consume at Your Own Pace: Just because people skim through articles online doesn’t mean they don’t have the attention spans to read them. Rather, written content gives people the ability to consume new ideas at their own pace and pull out key ideas at will.
- Better Comprehension: Plenty of people learn best through reading. Some people can make connections and comprehend complex ideas through videos and podcasts but having a static page with text can make it easier for people to consume new concepts.
- Search Engine Support: Search engines are getting better and better at indexing videos and podcasts. However, written content forms a search-friendly foundation that can better-support your other mediums.
- Quality, Price, and Volume: Especially for content marketing teams with limited resources, written content provides the best opportunity to produce quality work at scale. Writing attention-grabbing content isn’t easy. But you can work with a great freelance writer for a few hundred dollars per article rather than spending tens of thousands for one production-quality video.
It’s true that people are consuming more media than ever before. The competition for attention is high. But that should be good news for content marketers. Your customers want your content—it’s just your job to make sure it’s good enough to hold their attention.
Final Thoughts on Continuously Investing in Written Conent
None of this is to say that you should ignore video and audio content. There’s a time and place for both. And with the right strategy, you can find the perfect mix that will reach, engage, and resonate with your audience at every level.
But it all comes down to working with your content community to deliver quality work that helps readers debunk the goldfish myth.
Trust your readers to think deeper than goldfish. They’ll reward you for it.