Solving the attention span brain drain takes some seriously creative thinking

In an age of ever-shortening attention spans, some brands are tackling the problem with some surprising innovations, writes Ovato's Ben Shipley.

The human brain is powerful, malleable and shaped by experience. Exposure to technologies like mobile phones, tablets and laptops have changed the way we think, heightening our need for instant gratification.   

Making a good first impression

This has led to the rise of so-called ‘mini-trailers’ that preview films before a full-length trailer. Mobile optimisation studies show that a trailer highlight reel can quickly capture the attention of audiences scrolling through social media platforms. Because most trailers start with a classification message, the mini-trailer is something different, quick and unique to grab the audience’s eye.

Pre-roll ads before YouTube videos likewise only leave seconds to connect with consumers. Ad agency execs publicly worry that such short-form content can never be as creative as its longer form cousins. But – as with any content, the key is entertainment or education. Geico, with its award-winning pre-roll campaigns of ‘un-skippable’ short films, showed you can use time limits to your advantage.

Other brands use even shorter social content in memorable ways: Citibank’s ‘#Literally’ campaign used one to two second auto-looping videos to boost awareness of its double cash-back card, while TV series Orange is the New Black used ten-to-15-second videos on Instagram and Facebook to promote the launch of its fourth season.

The ultra-short videos became the best performing content for the entire series launch, generating nearly 30m views and 12.2m engagements.


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From this, we can see that bite-sized content is an effective tool for building a first impression. Mobile content should be significantly shorter, as users tend to skim content quickly. To encourage active engagement, your marketing must be punchy, unique and highly accessible.

In the case of email marketing, this means creating immediate interest for your audience, and providing them with a reason to click through. In 2012, the power of strong subject line copy was revealed with the ‘Hey’ campaign from Obama, where a single word was enough to grab the attention of viewers and help raise $690m in campaign funds. Of course, this won’t necessarily work now, in 2019, but it shows the power of a different (and counterintuitive) approach. A subject line that broke all the rules of engaging copy managed to be personal, direct and intriguing.

Creating ‘moments’

Simple marketing messages get lost in overcrowded social feeds. More than that, customers are tired of being constantly advertised to, and are looking for something unique to engage with. Additionally, assumptions about what customers want to engage with need to be thrown out the door – the media landscape has changed drastically in the last five years, and what worked for you back then may not work for you now.

Creating experiences and moments to share is an effective way to drive buzz. Snapchat and Instagram stories have a distinct marketing appeal because they’re only available for a short time and can present something that’s both experiential and timely.

It’s what made Taco Bell’s Cinco de Mayo Snapchat campaign, where people could use a limited edition taco face filter, so effective. People were driven to engage because of a fear of missing out, a tactic that’s been used by countless other campaigns, including the release of blockbuster X-Men: Apocalypse, and by Target to promote its Christmas campaigns.

Engaging the full range of senses

Emotions and senses also play a vital role in building loyalty. This is reflected in print marketing, where sense manipulation creates strong memory associations. Interactivity and digital integration also encourage a more tangible engagement with your brand.

Motorola’s Moto X print campaign, for example, demonstrated the value of experimental print with its magazine advertisements that let audiences change the colour of the ad using thin LEDs and a simple button mechanism. It ran in 150,000 copies of Wired and created massive buzz across social media.

Print marketing also has the potential to be culturally and socially relevant – such as one campaign in Brazil aiming to tackle mosquito-borne viruses in the country during an outbreak.

A billboard educated people about the spread of Zika but also mimicked human sweat in a way that attracted deadly mosquitos. Insects that were lured to the billboard became trapped and died, reducing the risk of disease.

The ad was unique, practical and fascinating, drawing praise around the world. It also showed that paper can be used in unexpected ways to create new experiences and marketing campaigns.

In the era of shortened attention spans, your brand must work harder to stand out, whether through new marketing integrations or adapting ideas from traditional tactics. While capturing audience attention might be more difficult, with effective, snappy marketing and a focus on creating positive memories in new ways, you can excite your audiences and create new marketing opportunities.

Ben Shipley is chief marketing and innovation officer at Ovato.


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