In 2015 the Internet blew up with the humans have less attention than a goldfish stat.  Twitter advertising got a bump as marketers sought human goldfish living in the self-imposed 140-character limit world.   PowerPoint slide decks with obligatory goldfish bowls and memes proliferated.  It’s rumored the National Basketball Association hotly debated the need shorten games because, ya’ know, we can only pay attention for 8 seconds.

The problem with all this?  Fake news.  For real.  Microsoft is often credited with the factoid and yet its research report about Canadian web habits had this in the foreword, “Think digital is killing attention spans? Think again…Rest assured, digital won’t be the cause of our (at least attentional) downfall.”

Ironically, the statistic and myth came from people who didn’t pay attention to the study. But this myth won’t die a proper death having recently came across a fundraising blog dropping the stat as reason to follow his copywriting advice.

I’ll return to that advice in a moment but first, what’s the real deal with human attention?  To summarize:

  • Statistics showing people bounce around social apps or the web like water spiders on a hot summer day has nothing to do with dwindling attention.
  • Humans have great capacity for sustained attention.
  • Some attention is grabbed, some intentionally given.
  • Your fundraising job is grabbing attention
  • Inattention to your copy isn’t a deficit, it’s a choice.
  • The failure is on the writer/creator, not the reader.
  • Even if successful in grabbing attention, it might be selective or divided and sustained or not.
  • Context matters.  Content matters.
  • Attention matters because getting stored in memory matters.
  • A great way to get attention that sticks (memory) is stories.

The best story is one the reader relates to, hence our obsession on tailoring stories to Identity and Personality as cornerstones of creating stories that attract.  There are several other key elements to good storytelling but suffice to say, it’s one of the best hooks we’ve got to grab selective attention.

That brings me to the copywriting advice from our unnamed blog.  I’ve edited for brevity:

  • The top has short blurb about Need or what the donor’s gift will do to help
  • The first three-ish paragraphs summarize the letter, sharing need, what gift will accomplish, and making urgent ask
  • The middle goes more in-depth, shares details, perhaps shares a story [emphasis added] that illustrates the need for the donor to take action
  • The last couple of paragraphs tend to repeat what was said in the first three

I believe this outline is common.  The story is buried if present at all.  We’ve done head-to-head testing that abides by a very different “formula”, not least of which, leading with story tailored to the person.  It wins handily.

Eight seconds is a myth. Goldfish also get a bad rap; they can remember things for months.

The copywriting rationale of getting to the point immediately might be correct.  But what is the point?  Telling me the need and making the urgent ask?  Repeating yourself over and over?   You might get exactly what you sought to avoid, eight seconds of my attention.