Communications in A Short Attention Span World


It’s an understatement to say the way we communicate with one another has changed. In fact, saying this really understates the issue.

When I was in school eons ago we used a rotary telephone, wrote our term papers on typewriters, watched television shows on a television set, saw movies at a movie theater and listened to music on the radio or via a vinyl record using a record player.

Our interactions were different too. We spent a lot of time talking with people face to face. Our days were a lot less crowded. We were not on always-on. Generally, we carried on a single conversation at a time and rarely consumed multiple forms of media simultaneously. Our communications choices were far more limited. Media was not omnipresent and was not available in the palms of our hands. For the most part, we viewed our content in real time with no time-shifting.

Research and data were different too. Generally, consumer research took some time. At best, it was overnight, but often it was available monthly or quarterly. You waited for the research, analyzed it carefully and then acted on it.

Things are different today. We live in an always-on, data-driven communications dense world. In marketing these days data dominates. The pendulum has swung from the storytelling Chief Marketing Officer (me) to the data driven Chief Marketing Officer (not really me). I won’t disparage the value of data in marketing, but some have said it’s little like the difference between poetry and plumbing.

Plumbing is valuable. Late one night a Park Avenue neurosurgeon (that’s a fancy NYC address) was having trouble with his toilet. He called a plumber who showed up almost immediately and then made the repair in just 10 minutes. The doctor was impressed asked the plumber for the bill.

“That’ll be $17,000.” said the plumber.

“$17,000!” replied the doctor. “I’m a world-renowned neurosurgeon and I don’t get $17,000 for 10 minutes of work.”

“When I was I neurosurgeon I didn’t get that much either,” said the plumber.

Whether you like this joke or not, there’s a good chance you’ll remember it. That’s because it’s a story, not merely a data informed, optimized, real-time cross-platform piece of communication. Humans have responded to stories since the beginning of time when tribes sat around campfires late at night creating and reinforcing the narratives that defined their lives.

Storytelling is particularly important in today’s media intense, short-attention span world. As brand communicators, we have less time to make our pitch. And we have more pressure to make certain that what we say is on point.

There is however a longer-term marketing goal. It’s to have all of our brand communications be part of something larger; something that will endure beyond the moment. Back in the day we used to call this a campaign. Classic marketing campaigns lasted for years as they told, re-told and reinforced a brand’s unique positioning. Campaigns also avoided the pitfall and the pain of having to make the consumer evaluate the primary selling idea/brand association in a new way over and over again.

I recommend that we try to solve a short-term mentality with a longer-term approach. Think beyond the moment. It will pay off.