Everyone's wrong about audience attention

We should give the younger generation more credit than to think they all have the attention spans of gnats.

Millennials. Generation Z. Generation Alpha. If you believe everything you read, you’ll know they’ve got one thing in common: they’ve all got almost zero attention span. Those dazed hyper-heads who are addicted to technology are gripped in a continual state of constant partial attention.

Nobody sits still; everyone a massive multi-tasker. And it is changing the face of media, causing an entire industry to rethink their output. 

But we are wrong, every one of us. It is a fallacy, a false idiom. Because it simply isn’t true. 

The attention myth reached a new peak back in 2018, when a bright spark media agency invented a new six-second advertising format earning industry plaudits, press praise and public applause.

What a triumph. Overnight, audiences would sit through an entire piece of content, albeit it a shorter one. The much lauded ‘view-through rate’ would go through the roof. And agencies could extol the merits of their creative or campaign when reporting results to clients. 

What happens, however, if results start to show that audiences still turn off before the end or ignore what they are being served and, as a result, this view-through rate declines? Does that mean next year we create a four-second ad format? Then, the year after, two-second and then one?

No. Because this race to the bottom is all emperor’s new clothes and all involved are complicit in mistakenly conceding defeat. 

My 10-year-old boy, Jax, is a great example of the attention myth. Every few weeks, he pesters me to buy him the latest WWE wrestling pay-per-view event. WWE is an expert in brand and consumer marketing. Its last event was more than four hours long. And he watches every single second. Likewise, he’ll consume every episode of Sunderland ‘Till I Die – the brilliant Netflix box set – without fast-forwarding a moment. 

At Copa90, our popular documentary series Derby Days explores incredible human stories in and around football’s fiercest rivalries. The most recent episode – about Argentina’s infamous Superclassico – was 55 minutes in length, so sure to break the algorithm predictions considering it goes out to a predominantly 16- to 24-year-old audience on YouTube. But, alas, the average watch time is 27 minutes – nearly half an hour of committed consumption time for a group who apparently are unable to sit still. 

The list goes on. 

When Childish Gambino effectively broke the internet with the release of This is America, it was taken from standing start to number one music video by the very young audience supposedly unable to concentrate.

Yet this was a video full of hidden meaning – politically motivated and intelligent, multi-layered with Easter eggs that rewarded close attention. Such content could not exist if young audiences today are unable to focus, concentrate or sit with any content for any length of time.

But the truth is: they can. 

Young audiences are decisive and have no need to wait. You’re a guest in their attention span and they will ruthlessly filter you out if you do not engage properly. But get it right and you will be rewarded by these smart sharing souls – both with their undivided attention and, more than likely, the best kind of free authentic marketing. 

Let’s not jump on board with the attention myth and, instead, query what it is we are serving up to these brilliant young minds. Let’s accept that tired, interruptive advertising is unwanted and free up time wasted trying to circumnavigate the issue with more advertising formats to spend, and instead, focus on generating creative that truly captures attention.

James Kirkham is chief business officer at Copa90 and a member of Campaign’s Power 100

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