Saturday, January 21, 2017

Is the attention span of a marketer shorter than that of a fruit fly?

Last year on January 21st I blogged about Is the average attention span of a presentation coach almost as short as that of a house fly? In celebration of that anniversary I’ll look at how some marketers have been using the same bogus 8 and 12 second numbers that once came from Statistic Brain. More recently they have hilariously claimed the average attention span in 2015 is precisely 8.25 seconds, versus 12 seconds in 2000. They continue to claim a gold fish has an attention span of 9 seconds.

One silly reference last month was in an article by Ryan Shelley on December 16, 2016 at Business2Community ironically titled Stop Posting Crappy Content: The Art to Creating Content with Purpose which wrongly attributed those numbers to Microsoft. A second silly reference was in an article by Sandra Fathi on December 20, 2016 at Ragan’s PR Daily titled 5 PR and social media predictions for B2B communicators which also attributed them to Microsoft. A third is an article on January 8, 2017 by Vikas Agrawal at Customer THINK titled How to Drive Social Traffic With Infographics.

Even sillier, at Amazon is a forthcoming book by Paul Hellman titled You’ve Got 8 Seconds: Communication Secrets for a Distracted World. The back cover blurb wrongly claims:

“The average attention span, experts tell us, is now 8 seconds.”

But the most outrageous claim was blaming the 8-second attention span on the new kids in the work force - Generation Z. Jeremy Finch said that at Fastcoexist in a 2015 article titled What is Generation Z, and what does it want? He said they would dig below the surface but began by misstating the same old nonsense. Kimberly N. Ellison-Taylor also said it in a post on December 21, 2016 at the AICPA Insights blog titled 5 to Watch: Trends and Predictions Shaping 2017.

Fortunately these silly claims have been challenged. On January 29, 2016 at Policyviz Jonathan Schwabish wrote about The Attention Span Statistic Fallacy. He even linked to my November 16, 2014 blog post titled Does it take 9, 90, or 900 seconds to lose your audience’s attention? Jonathan also showed the Microsoft graphic including the reference to Statistic Brain that was cropped out in the version shown by Vikas Agrawal. Mindi Ridgeway referred to Jonathan Schwabish’s article in a November 15, 2016 article at WORDS per se titled The Myth of the Modern Attention Span. There also was a serious article on December 1, 2016 by Neil A. Bradbury at Advances in Physiology Education titled Attention span during lectures: 8 seconds, 10 minutes, or more?

If instead of marketers you had asked parents of toddlers about attention spans, they would have talked about minutes rather than seconds. On example is an article at Day2Day Parenting titled Toddler Attention Span: How Long Should They Be Able To Focus? Another is an article by Helen Fowler Neville at Parenting Press titled Be Realistic about a Child’s Attention Span. She said that a 2-1/2 year old may spend about 2 minutes on a single activity, or even play peacefully for 10 minutes. 

The Statistic Brain web page originally claimed the source for their silly numbers was The Associated Press. Later they added the more prestigious National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. I called their bluff by actually looking at the PubMed Central database, and easily found an article from August 2008 in Infant and Child Development titled Focused Attention in Toddlers measurement, stability, and relations to negative emotion and parenting. Table 1 shows their results for toddlers aged 1-1/2 (T1) and 2-1/2 (T2) years. For a 1-1/2 year old the shortest mean attention span was 3.19 (minutes). 
But, just how short is the attention span of a fruit fly? According to an article from 2016 at PLOS ONE titled Vision in Flies: Measuring the Attention Span it is 4 to 5 seconds.

Images of a fruit fly and a toddler both came from Wikimedia Commons.

Update on March 13, 2017

The BBC World Service radio program More or Less had a nine minute long story  titled The Attention Span of a Goldfish debunking the Statistic Brain claim. Also see this BBC web page.

Update on October 16, 2017

Jo Craven McGinty, the Numbers columnist at the Wall Street Journal, also debunked the Statistic Brain claim in a February 17, 2017 article titled Is Your Attention Span Shorter Than a Goldfish’s? Experts say pay no mind to claims that goldfish can focus longer than humans; find out for yourself. You can read the abstract online here.

I don’t have access to the Wall Street Journal via the EBSCO databases at my friendly local public library, and must instead actually go over to the library at Boise State University to look via a public terminal. Jo said that:

 “The National Center for Biotechnology and the U.S. National Library of Medicine are also listed as sources, but Ron Gordner, a senior researcher at the library could find no reference to the statistics in either of the organizations’ publications.

 The Associated Press is listed, but it couldn’t locate an article with the numbers.

 Statistic Brain didn’t respond to emails or a phone call asking for its source material…”


Cleon said...

Thank you for sharing your research and information Dr. Garber. I've always appreciated your ability to research and present. Does the presenter have anything to do with the attention span of the listener in speaking presentations and if so are you aware of any time figures?
Your friend, Cleon

Sonja Stetzler said...

The research about goldfish having longer attention spans than humans comes from Harvard Business School researcher Nancy Koehn and was reported in a February 11, 2014 issue of Marketplace Business.

Richard I. Garber said...

Not really. Ms. Koehn just looked up and recited the Statistic Brain numbers.

Richard I. Garber said...

The Marketplace reference is at 2:45 on this clip:

and says Nancy Koehn just looked it up on the internet. Statistic Brain did a good job of SEO, so their silly numbers came up - although there's still nothing behind them