At a conference I attended last week, the keynote speaker – a marketing executive from a technology company – was going through the usual marketing-is-changing slides, and there it appeared: a full-screen image of a goldfish. I winced. You can guess what was coming. The text faded in. Slowly. “Research shows” ­– he said vaguely, introducing his fandom of short-form content – “that over the last 10 years the human attention span has decreased from 12 seconds to eight seconds. That is one second less than the average goldfish.”


To quote Luke Skywalker, “Every word in that sentence is wrong.”


First, the myth of the decrease in human attention span has been debunked in myriad places, including here and here and here. Second, this myth insults goldfish. As the MythBusters guys found out, goldfish learn quite well, and their attention spans aren’t that short after all.

Let’s not sell goldfish – or our fellow humans – short when it comes to attention spans.

Shortly after listening to that keynote speaker, I happened to be talking with a colleague about some of the new streaming series, including Altered Carbon (which is fantastic, by the way). We ended up coming to the same conclusion: You need to give it a few episodes before it gets good. I find myself saying and hearing that with other series, too, whether they’re on Netflix, HBO, or even broadcast television.

Give it time. After a few episodes, it gets good.

We do, and it does.

In fact, the evolution of episodic television has depended on the deepening of our attentiveness. The rise of Netflix has given us the concept of binge watching. That, in turn, has helped introduce the notion of content creators releasing an entire season of episodes at once. And that trend, in turn, has enabled writers and directors to change the way they create content in those episodes. Gone is the need to have a cliffhanger at the end of every week’s episode. Gone, too, is the need to reintroduce the overarching plot at the beginning of each episode. Longer story arcs and slower developing characters are now common.

I’m fascinated by this. It’s the opposite of what many are doing with their content marketing.

Some marketers lean into the myth of the shortening attention span, using it as a rationalization for quantity over quality. They may be able to show clicks, views, and shares ­– the “attention metrics” – moving up and to the right, but this kind of quick-hit content is unlikely to make a difference for the business.

Many companies I see have bought into the attention-span myth to such an extent that I wonder if it’s their attention span that has shrunk.

In my experience, content marketers are under pressure to create more and more. The inevitable result is that we focus on “Squirrel!” content – that which grabs attention. Posts, webinars, articles, and other kinds of content created in this environment may grab attention, but they don’t take people anywhere worth going. Listicles may identify the five biggest challenges in a given industry – and fail to help people solve those challenges.

This kind of superficial approach permeates many business interactions. In a recent meeting I participated in, for example, a manager made a business case using four or five slides that covered only the most basic research into a problem. When his boss pressed for more, he told her, “I just wanted to draw your attention to the challenge and not spend too much time getting into the details of the solution.”

The details of the solution. That’s what makes content exceptional. That’s what holds people’s attention.

Let’s stop paying attention to attention spans and, instead, create content worth paying attention to.

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