It’s widely believed that the internet and social media have shrunk human attention spans to a mere eight seconds. And for content creators, the logical response has been to adjust our approach to appeal to a more distracted audience. But should we?
But two years after the paper was published, a BBC News article revealed the situation was much more nuanced. The ‘eight seconds’ number had not emerged from Microsoft’s own research, but another source that could not be verified. In fact, it turned out not to be true at all.
Serving up focus on demand
After all, how could people with eight-second attention spans binge-watch TV shows or play video games for hours? Human attention is complex – and that’s good news for people who want eyeballs on their content. Even in our internet-obsessed world, longer-form content still has an audience. In fact, a recent study found that for articles up to 2,000 words, the longer the piece, the more time people spent on the page.
One factor in this complexity is that attention is context dependent. Someone trawling social media is most likely looking to be passively entertained rather than learn anything particularly useful. During work hours, however, many people carve time into their schedules to educate and inform themselves – creating a context where they can be more receptive to thought leadership.
Another complicating element is that attention has many influences: emotions, time of day, noise levels, and so on. So when someone is ready to focus they have methods for making that possible, from removing distractions and getting better sleep, to using tools such as the Pomodoro method and creating the conditions for deep work.
Are you a Skipper, Skimmer, Scroller or Saver?
So if we must dispense with the idea that everyone has an eight-second attention span, how should we account for the full range, from eight seconds to eight hours? We suggest shifting to a different metric – instead of attention, let’s look at intention. Why and how is a person choosing to read your articles and reports? I’ve observed four common approaches people use when engaging with online written content. Let’s call them Skippers, Skimmers, Scrollers and Savers.
Skippers: Skippers are short on time but are genuinely interested in your message and will skip a few (or most) of the words to get it. You’ll usually find a Skipper scanning the page, looking for keywords that pop out. They might spend more time on the introduction and conclusion. For these readers, lists and subheadings can serve as helpful markers to navigate the piece better. Key takeaways summarised in bullet points are also very Skipper-friendly.
Skimmers: They have more time than Skippers, but probably still not enough to read each and every word. Skimmers want your overall message, as well as the basic points that support it. You’ll often find them focusing on executive summaries, introductions and conclusions. They’re more likely to read a full article properly if it’s short and doesn’t require scrolling.
Scrollers: A Scroller will have decided to relax, make a cup of tea and read every word of your content without time pressure. Scrollers tend to be receptive to the ideas you’re sharing without applying prior expectations. Conversely, Skippers and Skimmers tend to read with the intention of absorbing specific information.
Savers: These are the people with 72 tabs open. With the best of intentions, they really want to skim or scroll through your article but don’t have the time. So they leave the tab open, planning to read it later that afternoon – or in three weeks. Nobody really knows when it will get read, not even the Saver. I write this from personal experience as I’m a Saver myself. The advice for Skippers applies well here, as it helps savers decide whether it’s worth keeping that tab open for three weeks or not. Creating content that can be downloaded and consumed at a later date may also appeal to Savers.
You might identify more with one of these, but we could be all of them depending on how much time we have and how we want to engage with different types of content. Ultimately, people want to understand topics they care about and interact with companies they respect and trust. Like Skippers and Skimmers, they care about your message. Like Scrollers and Savers, they want to make the time to engage with your content. So as you consider what to write about in your next thought leadership piece, we recommend fretting less about the distractions you may be competing against, reassured that your audience will engage in the way that works best for them.
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