The surprising upside of digital-obsessed Canadians’ shrinking attention spans

A recent research report shows it’s becoming harder to keep people focused for long periods, but that doesn’t mean they’re completely tuning out.


Canadian attention spans are now officially worse than goldfish.

At least that is the claim that gracing the recent headlines of news outlets across Canada, including the CTV News, Global News, and the National Post, as well as those of international publications like USA Today, Time Magazine and The Independent.

While a recent study by Microsoft Canada arrived at that conclusion, the implications for those in the IT community extend far beyond such sensationalist headlines. The study, which included an online survey of 2,000 Canadians as well as another 100 strapped to an electroencephalography (EEG) to measure their brain waves, has much more to offer than the goldfish comparison.

Those who read beyond the opening paragraph of these stories or continued watching more than a few seconds of the news programs (which, the study suggests, many didn’t) found that although the average Canadian’s attention span is 8 seconds long (which is, in fairness, one second shorter than that of a goldfish), the study also points to a number of conclusions that can help network administrators and IT professionals better reach their target markets through digital channels.

Improved Multitasking 

Though short-term attention span is on the decline, according to the study, Canadians have become better at multitasking, especially those that consider themselves digitally active. It found that while the average length of concentration has dropped from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to 8 seconds in 2013, Canadians are more focused during that brief window of concentration. As a result, audiences are better at dissecting and analyzing information more quickly, though it is a struggle to hold their attention for significant periods of time.

Interpreting Subconscious Cues 

Amongst the study’s findings is a growing trend in media consumption, the phenomenon of the dual-screen, or using a smartphone/tablet while watching TV. According to the study, 79% of 18 to 24 year olds and a surprising 42% of those over the age of 65 use other devices while watching TV. But the most telling part of this portion of the study is an increase in subconscious identification of audio cues.

Alyson Gausby, the consumer insights lead at Microsoft Canada, told the Globe and Mail that “They were on their phones, and … they were reacting to what was happening on the TV even when they weren’t watching it,” Ms. Gausby said. “They were still laughing at the jokes, or when there were auditory cues, such as a tense moment, they would all look up.”

In other words, while Canadians often break out their smartphones during commercial breaks, the right audio cues have the power to snap them back to attention.

The Importance of Front-Loaded Messaging 

The various discoveries highlighted in the 54-page report point to one important conclusion: messaging of all kinds is better received when front-loaded. That is because audiences of all stripes — the tech savvy and the non, the young and the old — are dividing their attention into intense but short bursts. Marketing of all kinds is therefore most effective when the key messaging comes first, when the audience is most attentive, before its sudden drop-off eight seconds later.

Image courtesy of tokyoboy at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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