The takeaway to this article? Readers don’t decide to block off 5–10 minutes of dedicated attention to read your stuff. They are constantly paying micro-attention to bits of your content, evaluating how soon they can stop reading and move on to something else.
It’s managing micro-attention that makes or breaks your content performance.
Micro-attention needs a micro-solution
Micro-attention consists of the small but critical transactions that occur as the fickle reader skims your content. Each moment hangs in the balance as the reader decides to stay on your site for a few more eye scans, or succumbs to the pull of the rest of the internet. Or the pull of real life, because let’s face it: no one is reading your carefully honed wordsmithing in a quiet library. Instead, your readers are bringing the noise of modern life into the reading experience of your content.
For modern websites, reader distraction is digital death by 1000 cuts. This article examines the myriad forces that drive distraction, how traditional macro-level strategies like great content and great design are insufficient, and how to leverage the Asym micro-typography platform to win readers’ attention on a level that has never been possible before.
Let’s uncover the real enemies to content performance.
The first enemy is the mobile experience. Mobile isn’t your friend because of both environmental noise and device noise.
The second enemy is digital optionality. Indirect competitors are your greatest competition.
The third enemy is content and its downward spiral.
The solution to these problems? Read on.
Mobile—panacea or perfect storm?
Your content is no doubt great, but chances are that half of your audience is reading it on a mobile device. Strike One. Mobile readers are harder to engage – fewer page views and shorter dwell times are par for the course with mobile.
Yes, mobile changed everything ten years ago as phones became smart and took on new roles. Where before phones were used to make calls, smartphones morphed into opportunities for personal messaging, group messaging, email, social apps, browsing the web, shopping, games, and generally a perfect storm of distraction.
Smartphones made people accessible. You can now deliver your content to them at any place and any time. But engagement seems to correlate strongly with the size of the device. So it is true that there are millions of users right now on their devices who could be reached by your content.at this very moment wherever they might be. But how much of their real attention – the deep consumption of your message – do you really have? Probably not as much as you think. More likely you have their shallow attention as they multitask on their pocket- and purse-sized distraction device. Studies show that even when reading on a desktop computer just having your phone on and within reach is a distraction to productivity.
Part of the problem is environmental noise – your mobile audience is reading in line, standing or walking on the street, in that boring meeting, while watching another screen, at breakfast, lunch, or dinner, with screaming kids . . . you get the idea. Yes social media helps you reach a wider audience, but social media (and society) can rip audience attention away from your content.
The other side of the coin is device noise. How many notifications arrived during your 7 minute Medium post? Maybe the reader just remembered to write that work email they forgot about. Or received an actual phone call that takes over the entire screen (some people still take calls on their phone). Mobile audiences are attractive to publishers for the same reason mobile audiences are unattractive: they are easy to get (and equally easy to lose).
Mobile audiences are attractive to publishers for the same reason mobile audiences are unattractive: they are easy to get (and equally easy to lose)
Facebook recognizes the role of this factor and has limited how often publishers can have breaking news. Audiences have developed “fatigue with urgency” and Facebook knows this is bad for business. If Facebook sees user attention as a finite resource to be protected for its own ends, then everyone who competes against Facebook – and this is everyone who puts out content they want read – needs to consider the intrinsic value of attention.
Attention is being monetized – sometimes just a glance or a few seconds at at time. Devices and their apps now push urgency via notifications, banners, and badges. These often encourage if not demand interaction – preferably now – pulling away readers’ attention. Commodity or resource, attention is how many ad-supported businesses drive revenue. Attention isn’t free. Consumers have only so much time, patience, or interest. And they have many options where to spend it.
The optionality of modern consumption is Strike Two. Optionality is about the siren call of other apps, or surfing to another topic, or clicking / swiping away to the next ephemeral experience. Reflect on your own mobile consumption habits and ask how often you stick with the destination you just clicked on? Do other options intrude and pull you away from your original content?
Do you think your readers behave differently?
On any mobile device (or any non-mobile device for that matter), spontaneity wrecks havoc on reader engagement. Because as easy as it was to get to your content, it is just as easy to get somewhere else. How easy? Intentionally or accidentally, a click, a swipe, or an idle scroll is all it takes. The rest of the internet lurks uncomfortably near. Your audience is just one or two gestures away from becoming someone else’s audience.
Your audience is just one or two gestures away from becoming someone else’s audience.
The disposability of so much content on the web is Strike Three. It can be tough for your quality content to surface when readers are deluged with disposable content constantly throughout the day. Disposable content exists because many publishers make the mistake of optimizing for shallow attention. The reasoning is clear: if we just had the audience scale of Google or Facebook, think how much reach and revenue would follow. This leads to wars of attention among providers, struggling to compel more clicks at any cost. The strategies are often short term, and use humor, salaciousness, or outright misinformation to compel the click. This industry practice even has its own (infamous) name: clickbait.
The problem is worse on mobile because mobile audiences are prone to treating mobile experiences as temporary. If you are “killing time” on your phone throughout the day, it changes your mindset and your relationship with the information you view through that mobile porthole to the internet. The phone screen becomes a place of amusements and disposable actions. And that affects how your readers frame the content they encounter. There is a good chance your mobile reader expects to be interrupted while reading your content. Not a good frame to drive the performance of your content.
There is a good chance your mobile reader expects to be interrupted while reading your content.
The pervasive damage of disposable content
The problem with creating disposable content as a business strategy is that, let’s face it, publishers don’t have the reach of Facebook and Google. Clickbait has consequences – namely shifting your audience even more into this shallow mode of consumption and devaluing your brand. By treating your audience’s attention as a cheap commodity, you cheapen your relationship with them. Your influence, trust, and perception of quality suffers. Sure, you won their attention for 60 seconds. But is this what your really want as a publisher? Why prefer eyeball quantity over eyeball quality? Why prefer shallow attention readers over deeply engaged readers who might read the next article and return again tomorrow?
It’s understandably attractive – clicks and page views are easy enough to measure and are concrete. But trying to scale your way to success via short term solutions devalues the internet. Content providers and content consumers both share a responsibility here. We’ve done this to ourselves as a society. By creating more and more information as providers we’ve created too much information, too many options for the reader. Studies show that consumers react poorly when confronted with too many choices. How do they react with nearly infinite choice? By having shallow, superficial relationships with content. This quickly spirals into a content ecosystem where it’s a race to the bottom and the results are shorter attention spans.
Solving the attention problem
How do you reach a mostly mobile, definitely distracted audience with infinite choice and a disposable-information mindset?
Of course, there are common solutions based on macro-level strategy:
Great Content: Stand out from the competition with content that’s useful for your audience. Rather than providing content that’s brand-centric, provide content that’s user-centric.
Great Design: Design for people who skim rather than read. Use Gestalt principles to help your readers spot key ideas and group information into separate, easy to understand chunks. Readers spend less time trying to understand your content and more time using or acting on it.
While these are fantastic approaches and solve genuine problems of information design, they don’t address the catastrophic issue of fractured attention. How can we go beyond these well-worn paths?
How do you defeat death by 1000 cuts? Go small. The best way to solve micro problems is with micro solutions.
Micro-chunking—the secret to Asym
What can be done on a macro level can also be done on a micro level. Technology now exists that allows companies to do automated information design at the sentence level. Asym, our micro-typography platform, is a novel solution for the emerging economy driven by micro-attention. It’s a win for the reader and a win for the publisher.
Much as a skilled orator uses pauses to effectively group ideas together, Asym cloud-based software can instantly insert subtle differences to the spacing between words. These variable spaces between words provide visual cues that guide readers’ eyes and indicate which words belong together and which words are separate.
Justlikewordspacingmakesstringsofletterseasiertoread, asymmetrical spacing helps make multi-word chunks easier to read. Rather than the reader working hard to evaluate the importance of each and every word, these cues provide just enough asymmetry to draw micro-attention to the most valuable parts of your content. The end result is content is easier to understand.
Easy to understand content reduces cognitive load, which can help you either retain the reader just a little longer or more efficiently transfer your message from page to brain before you lose the reader. The message is noticed, perceived, and remembered better. Text becomes more engaging. If your audience is poisoned with information overload, deeper comprehension – even of just a few words at a time – is the best antidote to transient attention.
Asym is the only automated, scalable tool you can use to optimize your site for micro-attention. The principles have been around for more than 60 years, but we are the first to bring to market the technology required to apply it in real-time to digital text. We started with research-based text optimization that reduces cognitive load. Over the past three years we’ve honed that optimization over a wide variety of edge and corner cases. We deliver text that has been proven time and time again to increase concrete actions such as add-to-cart transactions, deeper average page depth, more repeat visitors, more shared content, and other high-impact metrics that drive revenue and improve your bottom line.
More of a good thing
Your audience’s attention is valuable. We know your attention is as well. We developed Asym to be as lightweight and easy-to-implement as possible so you can increase content performance without having to dedicate extensive time or resources.
As a technology company we recognize that providers and consumers are locked in an attentional tug of war and that this situation will only get worse. We do our own part to combat the core problem by helping companies retain precious audience attention. We’re also hopeful that by highlighting the forces that shape modern content consumption, both readers and providers will examine where their own habits and practices contribute to making the ecosystem more shallow. Enabling deeper understanding on the web is good thing.
Thanks for reading
Chris, Ken, & Edward
Antman pic: by https://www.flickr.com/people/28277470@N05/ – https://www.flickr.com/photos/28277470@N05/19671958442/in/dateposted/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44379583