Extra short attention spans and super-fast decision-making – how can brands tap into the new way consumer brains are wired?

When was the last time you managed to concentrate on a book, or movie, or TV show without getting distracted? Will you even make it to the end of this article without glancing at your phone or out of the window? I certainly haven’t, I’m three lines in and have already checked my email twice and opened Instagram. But we needn’t feel bad about it, the evidence is there, social media and its constant stream of content is completely rewiring our brains and shrinking our attention spans. 

But while our brains are struggling to maintain focus, something they remain very good at is decision-making. 

The saying “first impressions count” exists for a reason. When we experience someone or something new we are able to decode those impressions subconsciously very quickly – and turn that into the recognisable good or bad ‘vibe’ we get from that person or situation. All our baggage from lived experience gets applied in seconds. The same is happening as we are being served content on social media – based on previous experience, will I be interested in this? First impressions absolutely count.

The real kicker though, particularly for brands trying to get viewers to digest and engage with their content and message in full is that, on socials, this decision gets made in 1.7 seconds.

1.7 seconds. That’s how long our brains are willing to commit to deciding whether to watch on or not, meaning that’s how long brands have to capture the viewer's attention.

The truth is, we’re growing impatient. The speed of the internet and the rate at which content is created, put before us and consumed has resulted in a populace who are used to experiencing digital media now, and quickly. If something doesn’t interest us immediately, our concentration will lapse, and we can just move on.

And it’s exactly this ability to ‘just move on’ that has, in part, created the problem. You might give a new TV show 15 minutes of your decision-making time because navigating back to the Netflix menu and choosing something else is a bigger barrier than the simple swipe-up that TikTok, Instagram, Reddit and Facebook offer us.

Consumers just aren’t willing to wait. Even a 100-millisecond delay in load time can decrease e-commerce conversion rates by up to 7%, while a two-second delay bumps this figure to 37%. In short, your audience doesn’t want to wait around for you to interest them, and neither should you.

So, you’ve made sure your content loads within 100 milliseconds; what can you do with the 1.7 seconds you now have to pique interest?

There are some tricks that we know work – motion and human faces, for example, are much more likely to grab attention – but thumb-stopping content isn’t an exact science yet. There is no recipe for success we can apply to get results. It’s like guessing what will go viral, it’s too human to estimate.

But a good starter is to tell your story in reverse.

If consumers are unwilling to wait for the pay off, give it to them in the first 1.7 seconds of your content. It may seem counterintuitive to give the ending away up front, like delivering the punchline before the joke setup, but actually it keeps viewers watching. Ever wondered why we watch the same movie over and over? Humans love to know how it’s going to end. It’s comforting.

Seeing the payoff first makes consumers want to know how you got there, which is actually nothing new. You only have to look at shows like Dragons Den or Made in Chelsea, where the ‘coming up’ preface before each episode gives you the show’s best bits to keep you watching.

So put a shot of the finished cake in before you start showing the baking process. Alternatively, you could pick up a hack that some creators have discovered, which is to add ‘watch till the end’ text over their footage. It doesn’t tell you what’s coming, just that it’s going to be good. Sneaky.

With the average Brit estimated to see well in advance of 5,000 ads per day, it’s more important than ever to make sure your content keeps people watching. If you’re not used to social ads, it might be worth wiping the slate clean; while good creative is still good creative, TV ad formats with linear narratives will quickly stumble on social. Think about the traditional TV spot, there’s time to tell a whole story to reel viewers in before revealing the product, and finally the logo. On social, with just 1.7 seconds to keep scrollers watching, this has to be flipped on its head.

Get that short attention span and quick decision-making working for you. Tell the audience who you are (your logo or brand name) and why they should keep watching (the ending) as early in your spot as possible.

Social media advertising is a great opportunity, and with e-commerce influence rising and rising every year; digital is the place to be.

Now is the time to experiment with these platforms and finesse the content you put out. The social landscape is ever-evolving and the consumer’s attention is there for the taking. You just have to be the one to catch it.