Here’s why your content doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

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.

 

Overview

Let’s uncover the real enemies to content performance.

  1. The first enemy is the mobile experience. Mobile isn’t your friend because of both environmental noise and device noise.
  2. The second enemy is digital optionality. Indirect competitors are your greatest competition.
  3. 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.

Environmental Noise

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.

woman distracted by social media

 

Device Noise

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).

social media distractions

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.

 

Optionality

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.

distracting trending media

Your audience is just one or two gestures away from becoming someone else’s audience.

 

Disposability

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.

antman, representing a micro solution to a micro problem

 

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

 

Innovative technology without the FB hidden cost

Turning content into money can be a challenging proposition. It’s a noisy world filled with other companies trying to turn their content into money. How to get your content to surface above the noise and get noticed?

While we all agree people stare at their screens (including us), there is absolutely no guarantee they will actually pay attention to it or act on it. We’ve all experienced scrolling onto some really great content and thinking to ourselves “what a good idea,” then scrolling on and completely forgetting the original content. This typical scenario illustrates the difficulty in getting messages to go from the screen to the brain, and actually stay there.

To land customers and actually get an ROI on content, companies rely on pushing content onto screens. That is about ¼ of the battle. Getting the content out there is the easy part. Getting that content to stick is the challenge.

The perils of modern reading

To describe this very directly, getting your content from the screen into your viewers heads ain’t easy.

Attention transactions matter

It’s comforting to believe once your content is published, readers “just download” your carefully crafted message into their brains with 100% fidelity like a copy and paste. But modern reading environments are tough: noisy, frequently mobile, and often multiscreen. We all know multitasking is bad, yet we all do it because our modern devices and technology make it so easy. And today’s readers have fleeting attention spans that are just few swipes or clicks away from someone else’s content. Alerts, notifications, and breaking news are roadside hazards for your delivering your message. In the space between your published content and readers’ brains there’s a lot of room for information loss and message degradation. How to help your message get through?

The standard approach

Facebook does a great job of getting your content onto screens in front of people. It acts as technology that exists between you and your customers, and helps you get those customers. The events of that past months make the not-so-hidden cost is pretty clear. To get your content in front of people Facebook demands you place your content onto their platforms, where it happily exists as a data vampire, feeding on your content and making money selling and reselling your data.

 

tweet complaining about Facebook Data Breach

 

We don’t do that. Like Facebook we are technology that exists between your and your customers, but the similarities end there. Our approach keeps your content on your platforms. Our technology facilitates getting the message from the screen to your customers heads by making it easier to scan and remember information. And because we use a small (micro) charge per attention exchange as our business model, our interests are aligned. We succeed when your consumers read more.

Make it stick

Our innovative microtypography uses cues based on neuroscience to help get messages from screens to your customers’ brains. It makes messages sticky. There is no simpler way to put it.

 

Asym makes ideas stick better

 

It’s easy to get into the weeds here and dive into intricate details, but a 30,000 ft view of our technology looks like this.

Our team is stacked. We have a PhD in neuroscience who is a leading expert in word and letter recognition. Using a cutting-edge ingenious approach to visually group words  into chunks, he was able to identify the exact locations in text where readers’ eyes need cues in order to separate high-value and low-value sections of text.

Working with an ex-Google (and ex-YouTube, ex-eBay, and ex-PayPal) engineer, together they were able to deliver this cue-enhancing text chunking via a fast API to digital text. In approximately 60 milliseconds, the typography of every line on your page can be optimized for typical human reading patterns.

Readers scan and skim quicker, parse the document into sensible blocks of ideas, and retain those ideas more successfully than when reading text without the cues. This enhanced reading experience turns into more engagement (clicks), longer dwell times, greater page depth, and reduced bounce rates. The increased comprehension and engagement has real world consequences such as more add-to-cart transactions, more checkouts, and more conversions. It also happens to help people with low literacy read easier.

There is more to the inner workings of how we are able to lift conversion rates for every page of content on your site by 10-15% minimum, but don’t take our word for it. Test us. For free. Depending on the package you get, we can even tune the typography to suit the reading patterns and average reading level of your audience.

If you need a way to move the lever on every page in your site, regardless of if your site has 20 thousand or 20 million page views a month, it may be worth a try. We make your messages more sticky. You could even say we make them superstick.

You can reach us here.

Get it across innovatively. And nicely.

Our business model is built to serve you without the nasty surprises of the other business models that have been making the news. You can test us free, no commitment required to ensure the results we’ve driven for others work for you as well. Because there is no overhead expense and you can uninstall with no issues and no commitments, this is literally zero-risk.

Our technology is a different approach to winning customers. Like other approaches it exists to help get your content from screens into people’s heads, but the way we go about is very different from any other approach out there. We aren’t like others, but that may be a good thing.

Are you innovative enough to test us? Risk free?

 

Thanks for reading.

The Asym Team

Metrics – the ‘equal responsibility’ view

Asym stacks with existing optimization efforts to compound your results. The ‘equal responsibility’ model of metrics takes the same stacking approach.

This post is the fourth in our series on metrics. It introduces the idea that metrics can be seen as pillars, rather than a pyramid.

The other posts in the series provide different perspectives on which metrics are most valuable. The first post looks at a Harvard Business Review perspective on how Tesla shows existing metrics are outdated. The second post helps make sense of metrics by grouping them into 4 broad categories. The third post presents the traditional view of metrics, with consumption metrics driving everything else. The fifth and sixth posts look at the business view, and the ‘what pays the bills’ view, respectively.

 

Everything matters

The equal responsibility view goes somewhat counter to the traditional ‘start with lots of consumption and work from there’ view. With this less common approach, each metric is seen as equally necessary to ultimate success.

 

infographic - metrics equal responsibility view

 

Each element stacks with the other, with no one category taking the lion’s share. The entire process contributes to business success. As we reviewed in our previous post, this approach can avoid some of the errors introduced when consumption metrics are seen as the most significant drivers of business success.

 

Categories as pillars rather than pyramid

The last post shared a compelling graph revealing how essential quality of attention is. Mobile users outnumber desktop users, yet desktop users are almost 3 times more likely to purchase than mobile users. Tablet users about 2 times more likely.

The difference between mobile and the rest? Not many people slip a desktop or tablet into their back pocket and read while doing 5 other things. Mobile suffers from poor quality of attention.

 

Mobile conversion rates worse than desktop

 

Which matters when prioritizing metrics because when quality of attention enters the picture, metrics that indirectly indicate quality of attention (metrics such as engagement, leads, and sales) deserve more investment.

 

When quality of attention enters the picture, metrics that indirectly indicate quality of attention (metrics such as engagement, leads, and sales) deserve more investment.

 

Especially with companies that have suffered through one of the 3 misleading patterns which we described previously, consumption metrics no longer hold that strong anchoring position that is traditionally given them. Instead, every category becomes a pillar, each contributing the same value to the business success. No one category drives the business, yet none are unimportant.

 

Summing up

There is an intuitive reasonableness to the ‘equal responsibility’ approach.  Where other approaches to prioritizing metrics stress the importance of specific categories, the ‘categories as pillars’ model side-steps this bias. No one category of metrics is seen as paramount to the others.

When it comes to determining the model that is best suited for your company, both tradition and opinion are less-than-ideal guides. Insight, founded on data, can inform your decision. As we will see in the next article, a more aggressive model moves away from this moderate approach and completely inverts the traditional approach to metrics. Read on to uncover which approach best fits your needs.

 

Introducing Asym Spacing

The spaces between the words we read every day have remained essentially unchanged since the Early Middle Ages. Uniform, unvarying word spacing dominates how type is arranged despite radical technological developments in the past millennium in the way text and documents are created and distributed. But why are even spaces the norm, when decades of science have proven that uneven spaces add significant value to comprehension?

This is why we founded Asymmetrica Labs – to make this nascent discovery an accessible technology – and this is our story.

Almost every modern writing system uses punctuation. This function seems crucial and obvious to us now, but punctuation, including word spacing, took centuries to develop and catch on as practice. Brace yourself for a brief history of the status quo.

Greek Papyrus
Example of continuous writing in Ancient Greek.

The earliest punctuation was developed around the 5th century BCE by the Greeks who used the paragraphos to separate text passages into paragraphs, or text sections. Before this point:

GREEKWASWRITTENWITHOUTWORDSPACINGORANYOTHERWORDMARKINGS.

Paragraphos
Examples of paragraphos, one of the earliest forms of punctuation, used to mark document sections.

The paragraphos was followed by the dicolon and tricolon, used by ancient Greek playwrights to indicate when an actor should pause for breath when reading the work aloud. Aristophanes of Byzantium in c. 200 BCE used punctus, which were dots at various heights on a line: kōlon, komma, and periodos to indicate pause length. As you may guess, these marks evolved into their modern namesakes.

Adding spaces between words on the other hand is, perhaps surprisingly, a relatively recent development. In the 7th-8th centuries Irish scribes began adding visual cues in order to help make Latin more readable to non-native speakers. These visual cues were the spaces between words that we know today.

But the use of word spacing with modern hierarchical punctuation (reminiscent of Aristophanes’) took until the 19th century to become a systematic practice. This system of separating words with uni-­size blanks is used in many modern writing systems for Latin, Cyrillic, and Arabic scripts.

In 1951, North & Jenkins published a study [1] which showed that participants read faster and showed better comprehension (10.9% better) when the phrases were made more obvious. Multiple studies on phrase-based (also called “syntactically cued”) formatting have been published throughout the latter half of the 20th century which corroborate this important finding.

But why have these studies not been applied to mainstream reading materials?

One answer is that both the publishing industry and typography in general are conservative and slow, if not resistant, to change.

Another key reason is the intersection of technology, distribution, and ease of use, which have not historically been available to embrace and leverage the science for everyday use.

One more answer is that some approaches to phrase-formatting try to change people’s reading habits and how documents are arranged instead of augmenting the natural reading habits of good readers.

Take attempts to reform the English spelling system as a case study in technology reform. There have been many (well intentioned) attempts to simplify the unwieldy English spelling system. How successful have they been?

Not very. Yes, English does have one of the most complex system and rules for spelling. But once you’ve learned it, who wants to learn a new system – even if it’s simple to learn? And what about backwards compatibility – why obsolete all previously published books?

We wanted to steer clear of technology solutions that require users to actively learn a new system. Historically, no good solution has been available for applying this science to everyday reading materials.

Until now.

Asymmetrica leverages new technology to bring advances in reading science to massive audiences. Several recent advances makes this technological feasible, including improvements in: (1) web typography, (2) web and ebook distribution, (3) and mobile display hardware. Incombination, these advances now make it possible to represent word spacing in a way that augments comprehension of a language’s intrinsic pseudosyntactic structure.

But what is pseudosyntax? Pseudosyntax is an early stage of comprehension where your brain makes quick, rough estimates of the syntax based on statistical properties of the language. Later in comprehension, your brain periodically revises this guesstimate and tries to integrate it into a true syntax, a slower, more robust representation that handles exceptions to the guesstimates.

Asymmetrica’s novel approach is to directly compute the pseudosyntactic structure of a language and apply the measured structure subtly, but visibly, to the spaces. We do this seamlessly and in real time to improve everyday reading. Just as punctuation and word spacing have improved reading and made writing accessible to the masses, Asymmetrica’s spacing (Asym Spacing) takes the next significant step in improving everyone’s reading experience.

What may be a surprising statistic is that 43% of Americans have low literacy and have difficulty with moderately challenging literacy activities. Reading ability can’t be taken for granted, and our success as readers can’t be judged by a simple pass or fail. Our lives in the information age are complicated, distracting, and tiring with constant demands to read and process more and more information. Those fortunate to be above average in reading ability may not be performing at their best in today’s highly-distractible, always-connected environment.

Everyone can benefit from the reading improvements Asym Spacing delivers. Even if you think you’re already a good reader, consider the following scenarios in which phrase-­based formatting has demonstrated improvements to reading performance:

  • Students young and old who want to improve their learning performance, either for their primary language or one or more secondary languages;
  • Below average readers (Lake Wobegon children excepted);
  • Busy professionals who read every day in a distracting environment;
  • Readers who find that they often read while they’re tired, and want to maintain and improve their reading performance even under poor conditions;
  • Anyone who feels overwhelmed by today’s information overload and wants to improve their experience.

Whether you read news articles, journals, books, or even your Facebook feed, adding Asym Spacing can improve your experience.

Today, Asymmetrica Labs is launching the Asym Browser Extension for Chrome, Firefox, and Safari for pages in English. In the background, the Asym extension will dynamically apply our language models to the contents of your web pages. After your pages load, our spacing will quickly “snap” into place. We never change the text content, we just augment it with better word spacing.

We’re pleased to provide this benefit to everyone and, in our initial release phase, the extension will be free. Support for Spanish and other languages are in the pipeline.

Content creators and distributors can benefit as well. Asymmetrica offers testing plans for creators to format their content using our secure APIs. Run A/B tests between the original content and Asym Spacing, and find out how much Asym Spacing can improve your content for your readers – we only benefit if you do. Delivering your content with Asym Spacing to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people will improve your users’ experience and your bottom line.

Keep an eye out for our future developments, and enjoy your reading!

This entire post was formatted using this technology. Did Asym Spacing improve your reading experience?

Let us know what you think on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, or LinkedIn (@AsymmetricaLabs) or in the comments below.

[1]    North, A. J., & Jenkins, L. B. (1951). Reading speed and comprehension as a function of typography. Journal of Applied Psychology.