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Do We Have The Attention Span Of A Goldfish?

By Neal Moore, Co-Founder & CEO

May 28, 2015

(This article was first published as ‘You Are Not A Goldfish!’ on LinkedIn)

I’ll say it again in case you got distracted, you are not a goldfish. But, if you attended as many Marketing and Public Relations (PR) conferences as I do you’d be forgiven for thinking you are. That’s if you can pay attention long enough, because according to a whole range of esteemed thought-leaders (who, ironically, tend to speak for at least an hour) you have an attention span of between seven and eight seconds…like a goldfish.

Let’s take for example this picture from a presentation that was retweeted into my feed a few weeks ago nudging me on to this train of thought (Picture credit: https://twitter.com/Amisampath/status/580199211267829760):

This “fact” is patently untrue, but one should never let the facts get in the way of a good story and the story being told here is that it’s not the brand’s fault if no one engages with their content, it’s the audience’s – they’re just too stupid. Really? It seems to me there is a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between the time it takes to grab someone’s attention and their subsequent attention span, which is actually increasing.

Behold! In the last ten years the average Hollywood blockbuster has increased in length from just under two hours to over 130 minutes. In fact, movies today are 1.2 times longer than they were in 1992. We no longer watch episodes but binge-watch between two and six episodes of the same TV show in one sitting according to a Netflix user survey. In publishing, we’re not just gobbling up individual books but ongoing series such as last year’s bestselling Divergent trilogy, 2013’s Fifty Shades Trilogy, 2012’s The Hunger Games Trilogy and 2011’s Songs of Fire & Ice saga a.k.a. Game of Thrones. We simply couldn’t do that if we had the attention span of a goldfish.

And what about the goldfish, huh? Who’s going to stand up for that poor, slandered bastard? No one has any idea what a goldfish’s attention span is – it’s never been tested. But, according to international goldfish authority The Goldfish Tank it’s memory can hold information for months so even the analogy is rubbish!

The issue here is not our attention spans, it’s how to grab our attention in a crowded content landscape that sees this much (look down) content uploaded to the Internet every single minute of the day! If you can crack that then our attention spans are potentially infinite. The question is, how do you create the trailer that will convince your audience to see the whole movie? Quality. (Picture credit: https://www.domo.com/learn/data-never-sleeps-2)

Too many people believe that quality is the preserve of “old media” not the internet. But when old media such as The Economist can boast an average 2.5 hour weekly reading time for their print edition, maybe we should consider quality as medium agnostic.

The Internet is not just about User Generated Content (UGC) platforms such as SoundCloud, YouTube and Tumblr. It’s also about iTunes, Netflix and Kindle, all of which are delivered down the same pipe to the same devices and can provide me with a range of quality content from Beethoven’s 9th to Citizen Kane to the complete works of Shakespeare. And that, I’m sorry to say, is what brands are competing with. In a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), flexitime working world, I have my device with me all day long and I work when I feel like it. I can access literally any kind of content anywhere at any time, so why would I access yours? And why would I engage with it if it is not of the kind of quality that I can get from any number of other providers?

As AOL’s Digital Prophet David Shing says, “Content does not compete with advertising. It competes with popular culture.” So take a leaf out of Intel’s book, or Nissan’s, or Lego’s and invest in quality if you want sustained attention.

Postscript: for anyone who decides to take a leap from this into actually buying a gold fish, we encourage you to read this guide to gold fish care from the good folks at It’s a Fish Thing, who got in touch with us after posting this.