Lessons from Serial: The Myth of the Shrinking Attention Span


      Bookmark and Share

BEST PRACTICES SERIES

I've been thinking a lot about attention span lately. Since the advent of Twitter, we've been told that our audience is no longer capable of maintaining interest in what we have to say if it's more than 140 characters long. Then Vine appeared on the scene with 6-second videos, and panic nearly ensued. Meanwhile, though, millions of Americans sat down on their couches to binge watch entire seasons of Orange Is the New Black. Clearly, the public at large is perfectly capable of paying attention when it wants to. So what are we to conclude from this information? The problem isn't your audience's attention span--it's your content.

It's hard to make a case for the shrinking attention span when people are spending entire weekends in front of their television (or whatever screen they're watching programming on), wondering what Francis Underwood is going to do next on House of Cards. But let's move away from the world of addictive Netflix originals for a moment and talk about podcasts. That business is booming, and there is no clearer indication that people want great, long-form content.

Podcast networks are popping up like dandelions in your lawn-only no one is likely to come along and weed out these networks. American Public Media has Infinite Guest, while Public Radio International (PRI) has SoundWorks, and Public Radio Exchange (PRX) has Radiotopia. And if we want to get really meta about it, former This American Life producer, Alex Blumberg, left the show to start his own podcast company, and he's podcasting about the experience.

Speaking of This American Life, the popular radio show spurred its own podcast offshoot called Serial. Serial is my latest podcast obsession. The show follows one story-in this case, a 15-year-old murder-during the course of the season, looking at each aspect in-depth. As I write this, four episodes have been released. Each week, I am left pacing and nervously scratching like an addict, waiting to find out what happens next week.

This is very long-form storytelling. Serial stretches out one story during an entire season-almost like The Wire of podcasts. It not only asks listeners to take the time to listen, but to wait an entire week to find out what happens next. In the TV world, this is nothing new; for podcasts, this is darn near revolutionary.

The spinoff, hosted by This American Life's Sarah Koenig, is taking advantage of one of the main benefits of podcasting, which is that each episode can be as long or short as it needs to be. Some episodes are an hour long, while others barely scratch the half-hour mark. That's the beauty of podcasting though, right? You can pretty much do whatever you want-or need-to do.

Longform.org also knows that there is still an audience for in-depth, relevant content, which is why it curates the best in long-form journalism and makes it accessible and easy to find via its site. Still, the myth of the shrinking attention span persists. A quick Google search will turn up plenty of advice on how to market to people with shrinking attention spans. So why do we continue to believe people just can't concentrate on anything?

We all jump around on the internet-I won't dispute that. We're inundated and constantly looking for the piece of content that is actually going to grab our attention and make us finish it. This is why storytelling is so important. You can tick off statistics and bore your audience to no end-causing them to click to the next page-or you can tell them a story that compels them to read, listen, or watch until the end.

Of course, there are times when brevity works in your favor. On mobile devices, for instance, context is everything. Few people want to read a 3,000-word piece on a tiny screen (and those screens are getting tinier as wearables come more into play). Breaking news also lends itself well to short formats, especially when you're competing against hundreds of other outlets for eyeballs. Your time and resources are better spent on creating content that can help you stand out from the crowd-provide analysis or entertain in a way no one else can. So if your audience isn't finishing your 2-minute video or your 500-word blog post, don't blame anyone but yourself.