At some point, roundabout the time Atari was all the rage, we started getting this notion that our attention spans were shrinking. They had to be, right? We were getting our news in evening TV soundbites more than multi-paragraph newsprint, the movies were all of a sudden full of jump cuts, and what about the music videos, huh? We could barely focus our eyes on Michael Jackson’s fedora before it was onto his sparkly socks, and those flashing sidewalk squares.
It became such common wisdom that we didn’t even seem to notice when kids started reading 300-page novels about boy wizards and girls in love with vampires and werewolves. And even when those 300-page novels turned into 700-page novels and epic, multi-part film sagas, and three-hour films took home all the Oscars (and all the box office), and then sold millions more when released in extended director’s cut DVDs.
As late as 2015, a study came out saying that the average length of time a human was able to concentrate on one thing had dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds, officially dipping below the attention span of a goldfish.
Except of course not.
Style changed as technology did; those jump cuts had more to do with digital editing than anything else, and though we have certainly had more to pay attention to in the past 30 years than we had in the previous 30, when something’s good, or important, when something is a revelation, or funny, or sexy, or changes our minds, or even credibly challenges our thinking, we pay attention.
It’s a high bar, of course, but no higher than it’s ever been. We’ve never paid attention to crap; and we’ve always paid attention to the good stuff. This just means that your copy needs to be good, using all the tools that writers have in their kits, like humour and vivid adjectives, varying sentence length, grab-me openers and killer kickers.
We’ve been hearing about the death of text for about as long as we’ve been hearing this specious stuff about our attention spans. And yet: Twitter, and Facebook, and Wikipedia. All text. When text is good, we can spend hours with it at a time.
This doesn’t mean it needs to be big blocks of text. There are ways to get your in-depth message across – headlines, tables of contents, graphics and graphs, sidebars and background colour – but if you do want to get your message across, it seems longer is not only OK, it’s actually better.
That’s what Massachusetts-based social media marketing and content managing company Hubspot found in its study of 6,192 posts on its own marketing blog. Splitting the posts into 11 categories, from under 250 words up to over 2,500 words, Hubspot found a pretty close correlation between length and traffic from organic searches, as well as number of social media shares, with what they called “the sweet spot” being between 2,000 and 2,500 words.
So don’t worry if it’s taking more than 1,000 words to get your message across. Just get a writer who knows what she’s doing, and take that deep dive.
(Oh, and that attention span study that compared us unfavourably with our goldfish? Bogus, like many of the rest of them. It turns out, psychologists and others who study such things don’t even recognize there being such a thing as an average attention span.)