Winning Media in an Era of 8-second Attention Spans

Microsoft recently engaged a study exploring how today's "digital lifestyles" are impacting consumers and their attention spans—and what this means for marketers. Let's just say the findings are a blow between our multi-screen viewing eyes.

In year 2000, the average human attention span was 12 seconds. The average human attention span today is eight seconds. The attention span of Nacho, my youngest son’s goldfish, is nine seconds. (That's according to Microsoft's research—I didn’t subject little Nacho to any ink blot tests.)

Herbert Simon, winner of the 1978 Noble prize in Economics, said “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” Even more jarring is the opinion of Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, responding to the research results and noting, “the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention.”

For those of us whose daily charge is the pursuit of attention from reporters and newsrooms, should we throw up our hands and consider our media relations outreach to be a futile, eight-second “pride swallowing siege” (thank you, Jerry Maguire)? Not at all. Evolution in how, when and why we reach into the newsroom hives is our ticket to reporters’ minds (and hearts). Ultimately, it is, and will be, the difference between those that know how to score air and ink (including virtual ink) and those that don’t.

Three Questions to Act Quick

Back in the dark days when I began my three-decades-long adventure working with reporters and infiltrating newsrooms to learn why very few pitches make it out alive, there was a popular speaker in the professional communications circuit who delivered a pitching presentation titled “Thirty Seconds to Succeed or Die." At the time, it was so popular, it even made it onto a cassette tape version. Today, the thought of getting 30 seconds of a reporter’s time for a cold pitch is almost laughable. Also laughable is the hope of connecting with a text-only pitch.

Today's media relations stars, like the young guns I work with at Pierpont, know they must deploy content-rich media to grab attention. They understand that the media environment is different this week than last week, and that by next month, they’ll have to change and adapt yet again. My young colleagues connect with reporters and successfully break through on behalf of our clients at a time when they don’t have 30 seconds. They have 140 characters!

The only hope to breaking through a newsroom’s distractions and emerge from bursting-at-the-seams inboxes is to give their reporters’ messaging that is tailored and relevant, with a clear, quick call to action. Our mantra is to answer three questions, and three questions only in a pitch: “What?,” “So What?” and “Now What?” What reporters can see in one glance makes-or-breaks what they’ll do next, and media-rich content engages with action in ways not possible through mere letters in black and white.

Adapt Your Pitches for Mobile

The Pew Research Center’s report, “State of the News Media 2015” showed that 39 of the top 50 digital news websites have more traffic to their sites and associated applications coming from mobile devices than from desktop computers and that the average visitor stays on a news site for about three minutes. Pew refers to this as today’s “mobile majority.”

For PR pros trying to pry a few minutes, errr...make that seconds, of a reporter's time to read and respond (favorably) to a pitch, you have to realize the limitations incurred by the fact that reporters are viewing most of their incoming news on mobile devices. This necessitates a new way to write and pitch for mobile that includes:

  • Email subject lines at five words.
  • News release headlines at 65 characters.
  • Email word counts at 200 or less.

I learned this firsthand, and not from a grizzled group of reporters, but rather from three young scribes writing for Chicago’s top daily papers. The reality is, if reporters can’t read your entire subject line on their phones, they won’t take the eight seconds to open it. They’ll delete it. And Google isn’t your friend. Its algorithms will truncate your release headline after 65 characters and forget about that clever sub-head. In algorithm-land, it’s history.

Microsoft’s study illustrates that our device-driven lives have rewired our brains, including those of the men and women living and working in the distraction-intense environment of a newsroom. The grand buffet of news sites, screens and infotainment has only accelerated an already hyper-paced news cycle and reporting environment. It's not an easy task by any means, but it is doable. The longwinded or easily weary, however, should enter at your own peril.

Chris Wailes is Vice President of National Media Relations at Pierpont Communications.