In 2015, Microsoft put out a study saying that the average internet user has an attention span of eight seconds. That is lower than the attention span of a goldfish — and down from 12 seconds in 2011. Say what you will about the merits of the study — it only surveyed 2,000 Canadians — but it rang true to a lot of people. No one pays attention anymore. And the amount of information that internet users consume has only increased since 2015. But if we presume that attention is forever dwindling, then trying to grab a piece of it seems impossible.
And yet companies are nonetheless laying out massive investments to capture attention. Those investments are being buoyed by changing behavioral patterns. Ten years ago no one wanted to pay for content. Today people want to Netflix and Chill, leading video creators to invest deeply in content production over the next few years. Brands from Hulu and Netflix to The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are finding success with subscription models. Five years ago, publishers were rushing to social to get a firehose of eyeballs to their content. Now they’re finding that social is less dependable, with algorithms changing rapidly. Publishers in turn are diversifying their channel strategy to engage their most fervent readers, rather than new ones. “Old school” tactics like email newsletters are seeing a resurgence.
It has always been true that if you provide a utility to users, they will trust and depend on your content—and your brand. The trick is to find out exactly what audiences are interested in hearing from yours and providing it at a time and place they want. If you give readers something they need, they will come back for more. Here’s what that means for content creators.
Your relationship with your audience is more important than ever
Every brand is a content company now. But if you treat attention as a scarce commodity that you have to capture for a fleeting moment, it’s easy to get caught up in an endless distraction loop, crafting content to chase eyeballs wherever they are. To really see results, you have to get to know your users.
When it comes to content development, start by looking at three things: user impact, business impact and the competitive landscape. What behaviors and insights do you know about your audience? What goals are you trying to achieve as a business? And who else is out there competing in the space?
All brands have a group of topics they can speak on with authority, but there’s actually a much more specific focus we take when producing content. What range of topics are users interested in hearing specifically from your brand? It’s a much smaller subset.
The way you find that sweet spot is custom to every brand. But there are a few strategies we’re seeing become more prevalent across categories in the past few months:
Create an omnichannel narrative. Digital users are increasingly adept at tuning out distractions. Trained to swipe, exit and skip anything that isn’t relevant to their interests, they are getting better at digital avoidance every day. But if a user trusts the information they are receiving from a brand, they are more likely to come back and do business. Garnering that trust requires consistency across channels—a seamless brand narrative that’s reinforced at every touch point. From branding and campaigns to social and longform, every piece of communication should feel like it’s coming from the same source: A source that users know and want to hear from.
Hone in on audience + action items. That means being crystal clear about who you’re trying to reach and why. Gone are the days when brands had the time and budget to spray and pray. Investing in efforts to get lots of drive-by unique visitors to a website isn’t as valuable as attracting prospects who are going to invest in your brand. For brands and publishers investing in content, you need to think clearly about who you are trying to reach and what you want them to do as a result of interacting with your brand. Remember that traffic and audience are not always the same.
Go direct to users with products, not marketing. Audience behaviors online shift depending on their location and intent. Facebook or targeted ads, for example, create disturbingly fickle streams of users. Today, we’re seeing many brands gain traction by focusing time and energy on direct-to-consumer products. They’re finding ways to take out the middleman entirely, with newsletters, subscriptions and even print products tailored to deliver highly targeted content directly to the people who matter most.
Test and learn It doesn’t matter how great your content is if no one finds it. Diversifying audience development strategies is a must. When you’re developing a channel strategy, start with what you know works. On many projects, we use organic, owned content as a test for user engagement. If you’re trying out new spaces and approaches, start with small budgets to see where you can get traction and double down on the areas where you see results over time.
As a publisher, you can create the best content in the world, but if no one sees it, what’s the point?