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Why we need to stop saying people have short attention spans

With more choice than ever before, consumers now have a limitless spread of options to scroll through, listen to, watch or read, leading to the perception that we’ve essentially become fruit flies flitting from one thing to the next.

The thing about perceptions, however, is that they’re rarely backed by evidence.

The ‘short attention span narrative’ simply doesn’t correlate with the rise of binge-watching, the willingness of cinema-goers to sit in a dark room watching a single piece of content for up three hours and the continued engagement levels among magazine readers. Given the right context and content, New Zealand audiences will still commit hours to a single experience.             

Nielsen analyst Carly Holloway says a key takeaway from the Nielsen Consumer & Media Insights Q3 2016 – Q2 2017 data is that in the last five years, there has actually been an increase in the average time spent reading magazines.

A loyal magazine reader now spends 77 minutes on average reading a magazine (up 14 percent from last year), while the loyal reader spending 45 minutes per issue (up 11 percent).  

Holloway says this suggests that readers are more engaged, with the trend not only at a top level but also seen in the time spent by individual title.

These engagement figures aren’t limited to a small niche of traditional loyalists, but rather an indication of the continued relevance of magazines to the 1.3 million New Zealanders who currently hold magazine subscriptions.     

According to Holloway, this engagement also extends beyond the page, with a third of New Zealanders having consumed magazine content online in the last month. 

While young people are often believed to dismiss print for technology, the numbers are proving otherwise, with time spent reading remaining strong, despite a slight dip.    

“We’ve never been more bombarded by information and newsfeeds, in particular, have conditioned us to move on fast,” says Rufus Chuter, FCB Media managing director. “Getting people to stop, to feel, think, or do something has never been harder because we’re often just scanning.”

He says consumers often scan through fairly average information and marketing.

“It’s an exciting challenge for marketers because it forces us to be more creatively ambitious.”

Chuter says attention is a useful focus when putting together campaign strategies and communication.

“It’ll vary by category and comms task but even low processing categories like FMCG demand highly distinctive communication that can cut through, earn attention and drive salience.”

He says attention is also the result of both message and moment in combination, so he works at the planning stage to define the idea and design media experiences and behaviours that amplify this.

“Magazines have always been a high engagement medium as they tend to be a conscious purchase decision reflecting a specific interest someone has.”

One challenge facing magazines is that time spent with mobile newsfeeds has arguably surpassed these ‘time spent’ numbers, and yet the levels of genuine engagement, interest, and investment from the reader is different. This also applies to watching a movie or streaming every episode of a series in a single night. A different context means different levels of actual engagement.   

“So time spent isn’t necessarily a proxy for depth of engagement or ability to command valuable attention. When it comes to the bigger picture this speaks to an industry that’s become overly focused on cost-effective reach instead of cost-effective impact.”

Flicking through a social feed while waiting for the bus is not the same as dedicating extensive time to a media experience that you’ve chosen above all others during your free time. And this always has to be taken into consideration when it comes to the war for attention. 

This story is brought to you as part of the MPA’s Magazine 360 content series. Click here to find out more about the initiative and how magazine brands are reaching audiences across channels. 

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