Shortening attention spans and your PR strategy

In Insight by James Verstringhe

There is a lot of evidence out there to support the view that our brains are adapting to cope with the quantity of information we are bombarded with on a daily basis, but what does this mean for your communications strategy?

Our Brains JV (1)

Some have gone as far as saying that our average attention spans have shortened. Indeed research carried out by Microsoft states that the average human attention span is now eight seconds, which is around 30% less than at the turn of the century and even less than the average goldfish.

Well, that’s if you believe the people who claim to have measured the attention span of a goldfish at nine seconds!

There are of course many explanations for why this is happening: rising internet usage and the sheer amount of information we have to process on a daily basis ranking highly among them.

According to research by media agency OMD the average person switches between smart devices around 21 times every hour, a phenomenon that Google refers to as ‘constant connectivity’. Research reported on Forbes revealed that in the office, 43% of workers abandon lengthy emails after 30 seconds and around 30% tune out of long-winded conversations with colleagues after 15 seconds. This is hardly surprising if you consider that on average people are supposedly checking their smartphones 150 times per day and spend 30 hours a week reading and responding to all the other emails in their inboxes.

While it is easy to poke holes in the statistics, a quick straw poll of opinion in the office and among friends confirms my own feeling that these figures are not wholly misleading.

So, with so much going on out there to distract people from your carefully crafted corporate messages and to avoid being crowded out by all this noise, how can you improve your chances of being heard?

Create content your audience is looking for

In an increasingly automated world where people search for answers to questions about topics they are interested in or have news and information delivered to them by algorithms attempting to predict what they want to see, corporate messaging has become much more targeted. This has put even greater emphasis on producing relevant content as part of an overall PR strategy. Content that you know your audience will find valuable and relates to your business. Just broadcasting your success is no longer enough.

Adapt content to suit the distribution mechanism

While it’s critical the material you produce supports the overall business strategy, it must also be presented in a way that is relevant and of interest to your target audience, as well as the platform you have chosen. Take Facebook and Linkedin as prime examples. Same people use them but for different reasons and most likely while in a different frame of mind.

There is so much opportunity now to adjust how you present your message to ensure it reaches the right people over a variety of platforms, both on and offline. A shortening attention span though, doesn’t mean that everything must be distilled down to sound bites or 140 character messages. While there is definitely an important place for this type of short-form content in your PR strategy, we know that long-form content like thought leadership articles and research remain of interest to your core audience, demonstrating both experience and competence.

What is the right balance between the media and direct publication?

Should you rely exclusively on intermediaries in the media to interpret and distribute your message or should you apply a more direct method, creating content in a variety of formats including video, animation, infographics and publish it yourself? In reality, your strategy will employ a combination of these tools. The emphasis will depend on the subject matter, your communications objectives and budget. It will also change over time.

Measuring the success of your strategy

We are also now in a better position than ever with access to all kinds of analytics from the various online social platforms and websites to be able to measure the impact and success of our efforts. The combination of hard data with some of the traditional anecdotal and more qualitative feedback methods of the past provides an attractive dose of certainty that not only helps to demonstrate the success of your strategy, but also helps to shape future PR initiatives.

It is interesting to note that as elements of human behaviour are adapting to help us cope with our constantly changing environment, the same technology that is the cause of so much of this change is also helping to provide the solutions. The underlying reasons for having a PR strategy though are largely unchanged.