We all know it: attention spans have decreased over the decades with the fragmentation of media (did I lose you already?). My parents recall a time when there were only three cable channels, while I’m not sure I even have a sense of how many streaming services are available today (Pluto, anyone?). Choice, choice, choice is what modernity has spoiled us with, and the ability to control and shape your stream of what you see and read every day only gets better with AI doing the work and actively finding things for you that meet your preferences and entertain.

As a result, we see only those things we like or agree with, and we scroll or swipe to move on in a nano when something doesn’t immediately entertain us. Short-form-everything is the norm now. The evolution of this shrinking attention span—as Scott Galloway said in his recent post “Attention is the new currency”—is dizzying. In fact, the ‘Attention Economy’ is now a thing - as a recent New Yorker article said, “It’s one thing to attract attention on the Internet; it’s another thing to turn attention into money.”

The Law of Diminishing Attention

We went from in-person shows to long movies as our main form of entertainment, to short scripted series, to Reality TV, to Shorts and Reels. We used to use the phone but now waiting for a ring and someone to pick up? Well that’s way too slow, are you crazy? We text. Further, many today consider calling, for any reason, to be downright rude. Uncouth, boorish, savage. An article in Inc stated that more video content was being uploaded in 30 days than what major television networks in the US had created in the past 30 years- that article was published in 2018.

Thanks to social media, everything we absorb is from an algo-driven, hyper-personalized feed, or 280-max-characters on Twitter. The monster ascendance of TikTok as a platform is arguably due to their algo and #fyp. Worse yet, TikTok is completely passive, as Scott Galloway said, “TikTok asks less of its consumers than any platform since broadcast television.” True. Even our limited attention spans have gotten lazy. 

Further evidence of our diminishing attention spans and collective patience levels is that video (thanks to TikTok) is now the de facto media format. According to Cisco, internet video traffic will be 82% of all consumer internet traffic globally by 2022, up from 73% in 2017.

Add Reels and Stories, and don’t you dare show me a static image. You bore me? I move on. It’s too flat, it is so 2013.

As reported by Wired, TikTok internal survey data showed that “social media users are flooded with large amounts of video content.,” so much so that “people’s ability to concentrate was being hit. Nearly 50 percent of users surveyed by TikTok said videos longer than a minute long were stressful; a third of users watched videos online at double speed.”

The Clock Ticks Faster

As marketers this has implications for how we communicate and get our messages across. The challenge is greater, the bar is lifted ever higher on being heard. Not only do I have less time to get your attention but there is now an infinite number of places where I have to find your attention….and then somehow manage to keep it.

Animoto noted that 47% of the value in a video is usually shared within the first 3 seconds and provides the following video view durations by platform:

As a result, Marketers today have to be more deliberate, concise, relevant, engaging, and disciplined in the craft of communication. What do I mean by ‘disciplined’ in communication? For example, if you go to an event and chat up a small group of people during drinks, you only have a few seconds for a hook to grab their interest, create a storyline, an arc, and then conclude with a punchline. If you go in too deep in any of those elements, people are suddenly looking over your shoulder to find someone more engaging, more important to talk to, and also, if, at that exact moment, there is a line at the bar…

Swipe Left.

We have the same situation with advertising and marketing messages, but now, the clock ticks faster. Your audience recognizes an ad. Blinders up. You can’t get into any extraneous details. You don’t have the luxury of seconds. You have nano-seconds.

So let’s break this down: Your stories are always interesting to you, right? As marketers, we fall prey to the same hubris. “Let me tell you the 26 to 37 ways my product/service is better than anything you’ve tried and all my 6 competitors…”

Swipe Left.

Crafting a Disciplined Message

So how do you craft a disciplined message? First, you have to create a message hierarchy, with no more than 3 levels; primary, secondary, and tertiary. Your best consumers, sitting squarely in your target audience, might be where you choose to advertise, which depends on the accuracy of your targeting methodology and understanding of your consumer (separate topics for another day).

Then they have to notice you. That’s your primary message. Choose wisely, my friends. It has to have a compelling hook and then hit them right in the center of their heart and head zones. It has to feel either great or horrible. It either has to shine or be incredibly dark.

Next, they have to find you interesting enough to pay attention. That’s your secondary message. Note you’ve been accurate and lucky 3 times to get to this stage:

  • Lucky Strike 1: Your targeting found your consumer in a crowded, fragmented media landscape.
  • Lucky Strike 2: Your primary message or hook caught their attention, hearts, and minds.
  • Lucky Strike 3: Your secondary message spoke to them. relevance is key here. You are solving a problem or have a plausible promise you will be making their lives more awesome at this stage (or both).

Ok, now we are at the hardest, most critical part. You have a tertiary message, or call to action. Here your potential consumers have to remember you or take action now (learn more, shop now). This is where the rubber meets the road. You incent an action. You move towards the goal (traffic, conversion, sign-up, etc.).To this point, we have the waterfall of decreasingly infinitesimal populations: the classic sales funnel, the dreaded abandon cart can still happen from here. t. 

Choose Your Story Wisely!

So what does this mean for us marketers? Back to the concept of discipline in your communication: discipline ensures that you think critically and pick wisely at each level of message hierarchy. Discipline is like maintaining a healthy weight. It’s never easy. It takes consistent rigor with attention to how you eat and how you exercise. You can’t just gorge yourself on sweets and ice cream every meal without consequence(…yet once in a while, I do try).

Similarly, not every story that you think is the best story ever will wow your new-found friends during drinks at an event. So you curate. Think about your customer. Tease out the wheat from the chaff from all of your many messages and the many great things you can think to say about your product/service and pick what’s important. Not what’s important to you, but what is important to your potential consumer/audience.

There are ways to mitigate risk with your ad dollars. If you can, test your messaging. You are spending media $$’s here. There are ROAS’s to track. There are future media budget allocations riding on your successes today. Get a few target audiences to tell you what the most powerful messages are to them.

At the risk of being ironic and writing an extra loooooong article on short form, let’s not forget that some brands don't have to participate at all in this new world of the nano-second in order to be successful. The level of participation should depend primarily on the nature of your product or service. Am I going to go to social and be swayed on my choice of sandwich bread based on a social ad or YouTube short? Or similarly, change the provider I use to re-fill my pool each spring because of TikTok? 

Beyond product or service, once it is clear a product or service is appropriate for short form/social marketing, companies/brands also have to be careful about which platforms they participate in to ensure it's in keeping with where their target/demo is going to be. My father's age: Facebook/YouTube, my age: Instagram/TikTok, my kids' age (if I had any, which I don't): TikTok/YouTube all the way.

To all my fellow marketers out there: go get ‘em. This is the fun but challenging game of sales, marketing and communication in this era.

Amy Madonia is a classically trained CPG marketer, Amy has focused exclusively on eCommerce for over 16 years and is known for her ability to drive digital transformation and execute business turnarounds. Amy launched the first eCommerce site for Wrangler Jeans—the only launch in VF Corporation’s history to launch on time and on budget and has led eCommerce for iconic brands including Hanes, Nautica and MAC Cosmetics. You can find Amy on Twitter and LinkedIn.