How to Market to Goldfish: What Decreasing Attention Spans Mean for Marketers

We live in the attention economy. And as digital marketers, our most pressing challenge is capturing and keeping the focus of an audience whose attention spans are rapidly dwindling.

How bad is it? A study by Microsoft found that the average human attention span has fallen to just 8 seconds – one second less than that of a goldfish. Let that sink in.

From 12 seconds in 2000 to 8 seconds today, our collective ability to concentrate on one thing has plummeted by a third in the 21st century. And it‘s not hard to see why:

  • We check our phones 96 times a day – that‘s once every 10 minutes
  • We switch between computer screens up to 566 times per day
  • 3 out of 4 people watch TV while simultaneously using another device
  • The average person gets distracted in just 8 minutes when working on a project

Faced with an endless barrage of information, notifications and shiny digital objects vying for our focus, it‘s little wonder our attention has fragmented. For marketers, it presents an unprecedented challenge: how do you reach an audience that tunes out in seconds?

Inside the Goldfish Brain: The Science of Shrinking Attention Spans

First, let‘s dive into what‘s really going on in our distracted heads. A few key psychological factors contribute to our goldfish-like focus:

Information Overload

Every day, we‘re bombarded with a staggering amount of information – by some estimates, 34 gigabytes on average. That‘s enough to overload our short-term memory, which can only hold about seven pieces of information at a time.

As a result, our brains are forced to become more selective about what we pay attention to. We start to filter out anything extraneous and only focus on what seems immediately relevant. For marketers, that means your message has to be on-point from the get-go.

Novelty Bias

Our brains are hardwired to pay attention to anything new or unusual – it‘s an evolutionary survival tactic. In the digital world, where fresh stimuli hit us at hyperspeed, we‘ve become addicted to the rush of novelty.

The consequence is a kind of perpetual partial attention. We skim, we jump from one shiny object to the next, we open a dozen browser tabs, all in pursuit of the next hit of newness. Boring, predictable content simply can‘t compete.

Selective Screening

In defense against the deluge, we‘ve become incredibly adept at tuning out anything that seems like marketing. Banner blindness, skipping ads, unsubscribing from email lists – these are now default behaviors for the majority of consumers.

To stand out, marketers must walk a fine line between blending in with the surrounding content and being too blatantly promotional. It‘s a tricky balance.

Multitasking Madness

Though we feel more productive when juggling tasks, studies show multitasking actually makes us less efficient and more error-prone. Heavy multitaskers also have more trouble ignoring irrelevant information and focusing on a single task.

With so many connected devices and second-screen habits, it‘s no wonder engagement metrics are slipping. One-track-mind consumption is increasingly rare.

If those factors paint a bleak picture for attention-hungry marketers, take heart. The science also reveals clues for hacking the goldfish brain.

Marketing to Goldfish: Best Practices for the 8-Second Attention Span

Now that we understand the psychology behind shrinking attention spans, what can we actually do as marketers to earn those fleeting flashes of focus? Here are some proven strategies:

Frontload the Value

With such a brief window of attention, you can‘t afford to bury the lead. The first three seconds of an experience are critical for conveying value and enticing engagement. A few ways to frontload:

  • Write headlines and hooks that are clear, specific, and tap into emotions
  • Use visuals to quickly communicate key info and draw the eye
  • Stick your value prop and CTA above the fold or in the first few seconds of a video
  • Promise valuable info, intriguing storylines, or strong opinions upfront

Design for Skimming

Accept that most people will no longer consume your content from start to finish. Optimize for skimming by:

  • Using clear headings and subheadings to signpost key info
  • Formatting with bulleted lists, short paragraphs, pull quotes, and ample white space
  • Highlighting key words, stats and phrases in bold
  • Including a clickable table of contents for long-form content

Personalize and Target

Attention spans vary by person, time of day, device, location, and other factors. Use data to deliver hyper-relevant content tailored to individual interests and contexts.

  • Segment your audience by demograhic, psychographic and behavioral factors
  • Use AI and machine learning to recommend personalized content and offers
  • Leverage triggered emails and targeted ads to reach people at high-interest moments

Visualize, Visualize, Visualize

Our brains process visuals 60,000 times faster than text. To lock in attention, amp up your visual content ratio. Some ideas:

  • Replace long text passages with infographics, charts, photos and videos
  • Livestream authentic, behind-the-scenes content
  • Create immersive visual experiences with 360° video, AR and VR
  • Turn data and research into snackable, highly visual micro-content

Make it Interactive

Passive content consumption is a surefire attention killer. To sustain focus, make your content participatory with interactive elements like:

  • Quizzes, polls, and surveys
  • Calculators and interactive infographics
  • Branching videos that let viewers choose their own adventure
  • Playable ads and branded games

Experiment with Formats

To combat attention fatigue, continuously test new content formats that give your messages a fresh spin. Some rising stars:

  • Short-form videos under 60 seconds (think TikTok and Instagram Reels)
  • Meme marketing that taps into cultural moments
  • Animated infographics and data GIFs
  • Audio content like Clubhouse chats and bite-sized podcasts
  • Flipbook-style web stories
  • Augmented reality filters and virtual try-ons

Harness FOMO

The Fear of Missing Out is a potent driver for goldfish attention spans. To inspire action:

  • Tease exclusive content, experiences or products that followers can "unlock"
  • Create curiosity gaps by hinting at valuable info without giving it all away
  • Use urgent, time-sensitive language and offers to spur immediate engagement
  • Gate content and limit availability to increase perceived value

Atomize and Amplify

No piece of content should be an island. To get the most mileage from your marketing:

  • Break long-form content into bite-sized micro-content that‘s easy to consume and share
  • Reformat key messages and visuals for all your social platforms
  • Equip employees and influencers to amplify content within their networks
  • Run paid promotion and retargeting to reach more eyeballs

Test, Learn, and Optimize

The human attention span may be shrinking, but our ability to analyze engagement is expanding. Use tools like heatmaps, scroll maps, and engagement analytics to see exactly how people interact with your content.

  • A/B test elements like headlines, images and CTAs to see what gets the most attention
  • Look for patterns in top-performing content and double down on what works
  • Set goals for key attention metrics like time on site, pages per session and return visits
  • Make optimization an ongoing process, not a one-and-done

Mastering Attention in the Goldfish Era

Holding people‘s focus has never been harder – or more critical. In the attention economy, brands that can capture and keep the gaze of their goldfish audience will win.

But it requires rethinking many of our old approaches to marketing. We have to recognize that attention is earned, not given. That people gravitate to content that is radically relevant to their needs, not just what we want to say. That novelty, not information, is the main currency of engagement.

Most of all, it means respecting people‘s time and mental bandwidth. Every piece of content you create should offer a worthwhile return on attention for your audience. Don‘t just add to the noise – make every second count.

In the age of the goldfish, less is often more. Fewer words, more visuals. Fewer choices, more guidance. Fewer distractions, more resonance. Master those principles, and you might just earn the rarest commodity of the digital age: sustained attention.