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A goldfish has a greater chance of finishing this post than you

Unless you're marketing to marine life, listen up. Here's how to hold the attention of humans.

Goldfish are statistically more likely to finish this post than the humans we’re trying to reach. Pair this with the content deluge that is the current state of the internet, and we have ourselves a wildly disengaged global population. So how can marketers cut through the noise? Alexandra Middleton offers advice (and solace).

An estimated two billion people worldwide tuned in to watch the extravaganza that was Kate and Will’s royal wedding. An issue of People magazine bearing Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s twins on the cover sold 2.8 million copies and a single episode of Keeping up with Kardashians can hold more than three million viewers hostage for a mind-numbing 30 minutes.

While it’s definitely a case of each-to-their-own, to me, this content is the epitome of boring, a drain on time rather than something that brings me any recognisable value. However, before I get too caught up in my rant, what I can appreciate about this content is its ability to capture the precious attention spans of individuals – a commodity so highly coveted by countless other content producers.

What makes these ratings so impressive (I really want to say alarming) is that the average attention span of adults in 2013 was eight seconds, down from 12 seconds in the year 2000. To really put this into perspective, the average attention span of a goldfish pips us mammals at the post, clocking in at nine seconds. While we’re clearly up against the odds, it does raise the question, what are we doing wrong?

Step away from that ledge. This is not a case of quality – the Kardashians are certainly not better content producers than you. In fact, you can rest easy because the solution doesn’t involve the selling of one’s soul to embrace the style of ‘trash’ TV.

In today’s society content is all-consuming. We endure a constant barrage of information from every imaginable angle, through every available device. The amount of content we engage with is no longer measured daily, but hourly. Take the average office worker who, on necessity, will check their email inbox on average 30 times each hour. So, what does it really take to create content that cuts through the sea of information to grab and hold your audience’s attention?

Whether it’s an email subject line, web heading or the cover of a magazine, in order to catch your audience’s attention your content needs to speak directly to them. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, if your content isn’t relevant to your audience’s needs, why would they bother reading it?

Be active and urgent with your words

The issue for many content producers is they find it difficult to show the full value of their content in the limited characters of a heading, intro or subject line. To encourage click throughs, use active language that makes your audience feel that if they don’t read this piece of content, they will regret it or their business may be left behind. If someone doesn’t have the time to read your article, you want them to think of you as the one that got away, the ex who is now the constant thought niggling in the back of their mind.

Get to the point and speak only when you have something to say

Once you’ve captured your audience’s interest, you need to hold onto it long enough to build a positive image of your brand. To do this, your content needs to be easily accessible and should at no point waste their time. This means delivering concise copy that gets to the point. I’m not saying that there’s no room for thoughtfully crafted long-form articles, but it shouldn’t be a case of filling in space for the sake of it. A larger offering doesn’t necessarily mean more value. You need to design content around the specific behaviours of your audience.

The ultimate measure of a piece of content’s worth is if you can say, with 100 per cent conviction, that you find each and every element of it interesting and engaging. If you can’t, don’t publish it. Delivering mediocre content to your audience just to meet a deadline plays them for a fool and could sabotage the existing relationship they have with your brand. Tell a compelling story and speak only when you have something to say.

So who’s winning at the attention game?

Which content producers out there have the winning formula? For me, a post that recently featured in the New York Times promoting the Netflix series Orange is the New Black is a great example for content marketers to aspire to.

The post explores the failings of the US prison system, which doesn’t cater for the differing needs of men and women. Opening with an active statement, a statistic documenting the increase in the number of women prisoners in the US, I am immediately left wondering why. They have me hooked and I read on.

As you scroll through the article, a mix of animated illustrations, videos, images and vox pop testimonials appear. Seamlessly integrated into the copy, these visual elements give the reader the option to engage with a more personal aspect of the story. Statistics show that not only do posts with an album or photo drive up to 180 per cent more engagement than those without, but also viewers spend 100 per cent more time on web pages with videos. What makes these elements even stronger is that their functionality doesn’t distract but enhances the user experience. Readers are in control of their own journey, ensuring it remains relevant to their needs.

As well as delivering strong, genuinely interesting information, the true merit of this piece of content is its ability to serve the brand’s purpose. With minimal branding at the top of the post and a plug for the television show at the close of the article, it is the interest the article has sparked in the real-life female prison experience that has successfully driven me to watch the new series.

With so many millions throwing away their time on the Kardashians, to keep my faith in humanity I have to believe that it comes down to not knowing what else is out there.

If you take anything from this post… actually, if you’ve managed to reach this far, thank you and congratulations – you are the envy of goldfish all over the world. But the best advice I can offer is this:

Don’t be shy about being creative. Use everything in your arsenal to create compelling culture. Lead with strong copy that positions your content as essential to your audience. Always deliver on your promises with relevant content that’s worth your audience’s time.

Quick tips for creating content that even humans will pay attention to

  • Create a strong first impression and leave your audience questioning whether they can live without you
  • Don’t waste your audience’s time. Content should be relevant, concise and delivered in a seamless format across multiple devices
  • It pays to use visuals to tell or support your story
  • Only speak when you have something compelling to say
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