4 Things to Consider While Writing Content for Short Attention Spans
Sean McGowanApril 27th, 20174 minute read
Sean is a technical researcher & writer at Codal, authoring blog posts on topics ranging from UX design to the Internet of Things. Working alongside developers, designers, and marketers, Sean helps support the writing team to ensure Codal produces engaging web content of the highest quality. When not writing about the latest innovations in app design, Sean can be found cooking, watching old movies, or complaining about the shortcomings of his favorite Philadelphia sports teams.
A few years ago, Microsoft conducted a study on the human attention span that ostensibly yielded some alarming results: the average human attention span had dropped to 8.5 seconds, a half-second less than the attention span of a goldfish.
This received a considerable amount of media coverage, with Time Magazine, Telegraph, and the New York Times all running pieces on technology affecting attention spans. This wouldn’t be an issue, if the goldfish statistics the study reported weren’t misleading—I’ll explain why in a bit.
Our attention spans may not be shrinking (not to the level of a goldfish at least), but it is true that our attention is under siege now more than ever. Marketers, writers, and content-generators of all sizes and sectors are constantly competing for it. We have only so much to give.
Your attention span is bad, but not this bad - (Source)
This has created a paradox: More content is available to us than ever before, yet we’re reading less. The inundation of content means we’re more likely to skim than consume. 59% of people tweet articles without even reading them, and half of pageviews are less than a minute long.
To receive the lion’s share of your reader’s attention, I’ve compiled four basic strategies to employ when writing content. Each provides actionable advice for you to implement, whether it be a blog post, email, or simply copy for your website.
But before we begin, I did say I would reveal the problem inherent to the goldfish statistic: Microsoft’s attention span study never gave an official definition of attention span; in fact, they never made it clear how those numbers were calculated at all.
Of course, nobody read that part of the study, because the content wasn’t optimized for our short attention spans.
1) Hone In On An Audience
Your audience is much more likely to read if they feel the content has been tailored specifically for them. Different mediums can personalize to different extents, but no matter what channel you’re using, the content should be customized as much as possible.
For emails, this personalization can be deconstructed to its smallest unit: the individual. It can be as simple as including the recipient's name in the copy, or as involved as offering user-specific product recommendations based on purchase history.
For blog posts, this means identifying a focused, but not too narrow, demographic to write for. Some of our recent posts include an article written for ‘decision-makers in the education sector’, or ‘heads of real-estate agencies’.
2) Divide & Conquer
When writing content for short attention spans, it seems reasonable to avoid long-form content. But a sizable length doesn’t mean it’s unreadable, as long as the content itself is digestible. To do this, it’s imperative to divide and parse your content into easily digestible sections.
First, use short, concise paragraphs. You’ll notice every paragraph in this article is no longer than three lines of text—that’s the rule of thumb I use to ensure readers won’t scroll down, see an enormous block of text, and become disinterested.
Three lines of text may seem too sparse, but remember the readers that will access your content via mobile. On the limited screen of a smartphone, anything longer than three lines is going to look like an unappealing wall of words.
With these shorter paragraphs comes shorter sentences. This style of writing doubles as good practice for SEO, but remember not to overdo it—you don’t want your content to read like a telegram. The sentence structure should flow seamlessly, and never pander to the reader.
As I’ve done in this piece, content should be organized into sections, and clearly labeled with a bold, creative heading. Other effective tools to make your content more digestible are:
-Using bullet points
-Or even number lists
Finally, be sure to include a “conclusion” or “the bottom line” section at the end of piece to summarize and offer takeaways.
3) Get Visual
“A picture is worth one thousand words” has been taken to the extreme in the digital age, as it becomes more and more evident that the camera is replacing the keyboard. Just look at Facebook’s transition from the status update to focusing on their live video-streaming function.
Your content needs to be injected with visual media, whether it’s high-quality, photos, videos, or infographics. These are not only more engaging ways to present information, it also leaves a lasting impression on the reader.
An infographic on the importance of infographics - (Source)
4) Design Around The Content
While your focus should be on the quality of the content itself, don’t ignore the style and design of the channel you’re presenting it in. Whether it’s an email or a webpage, you want to limit distractions from intrusive pop-ups, flashy advertisements, or skewed formatting.
You should obviously be writing with easy-to-read fonts that clearly contrast with the background of the page. For a blog post, consider giving an estimated read time at the top of the page, so your audience understands about how much of their time your content will be using.
Codal’s blogs give read time estimates.
Another excellent design feature to consider is adding “tweetables” to your articles. These are highlighted sentences or stats that, when clicked on, generate a tweet of the selected content that’s ready to be posted.
A tweetable from a Codal guest post on Soundest
Putting It All Together
To review: when writing for a short attention span, it’s imperative to identify an audience, divide the content into digestible portions, employ visual media, and design the content’s vessel appropriately.
While all of the techniques I’ve described are essential to generating content for short attention spans, it’s important to never de-prioritize the actual quality of the content. No matter how you format, personalize, or engage, if your content isn’t quality, you won’t keep a reader for long.
The content of a website can alter the user experience of a website. Most user experience agencies will include a “content audit” to their UX process. Along with this UX service, they may also include the content writing itself to ensure that the content strategy aligns with the design plan.