In recent years, it seems like attention spans have become increasingly shorter. A study published by Microsoft in 2015 even went so far as to estimate that the average consumer now has less attention to spare than a goldfish. This was an explosive claim, considering that a goldfish can only pay attention for about 9 seconds at a time. Microsoft pegged the human attention span at around 8 seconds last year, a big drop from 12 seconds in the year 2000.

Multiple screens, tons of media make focusing more difficult

The study observed the brain activity of 112 subjects and collected survey responses from a total of 2,000 individuals across Canada. The top four factors affecting someone’s ability to stay focused on a single task were:

  • Media consumption
  • Social media usage
  • Multi-screening (e.g., using both a TV and a tablet simultaneously)
  • Adoption of technology

For example, only 27 percent of people who engaged in “heavy” Web browsing were able to sustain their attention on a specific activity, compared to 39 percent of those who only did “light” browsing. Avid social media users were able to concentrate better than their peers in “digital environments” but, as a whole, they paid less attention during passive experiences such as watching TV. Similar effects were seen among early adopters of consumer technology.

Gold fish have short attention spans

Gold fish have short attention spans

Current “digital” lifestyles — i.e., ones in which consumers have access to many different experiences at their fingertips, via mobile devices, PCs and TVs — are good for short bursts of high-attention media consumption, but less suited to prolonged focus. The neurological reasons for this shift are complex, but part of it could be that dopamine (the “feel good” neurotransmitter) is released each time someone discovers something satisfying.

The Internet makes it easier than ever to jump from one thing to another. Are you watching an enjoyable TV show on Netflix or on a Video on Demand platform? It is easy to look for a similar program using the service’s suggestions or by just browsing through the various predefined categories. These actions would have been virtually impossible even 10 years ago, when video options were largely limited to physical media and linear TV programming.

The abundance of choice can drive up anxiety (this has famously been called “the paradox of choice” in other forums), and make it harder to focus. The effect of multi-screen consumption on attention spans has been especially pronounced. The different media streams, such as a live broadcast on a TV and a second-screen experience in a mobile app, put a lot of pressure on the viewer to stay alert amid all the clamor.

“People with higher selective attention appear to actively choose to have fewer distractions and multi-screen less frequency,” stated the authors of the report. “On the other hand, heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli — they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media.”

What do short attention spans mean for cable operators?

Before multiple-device homes with high-speed Internet access became commonplace, TV providers had a quasi-monopoly on electronic entertainment. Watching broadcast and/or cable programming was much more popular than listening to radio, and even many of the other forms of entertainment (most notably video games) were often TV-dependent.

However, cable operators in particular can no longer rest assured that they have the living room to themselves. In Britain alone, the typical household now has roughly seven IP-enabled devices; 40 percent of these people also purchased tablets between 2014 and 2015, according to a YouGov survey.

“Competition is just a click away” may be a cliché favored by the world’s Internet companies, but it is the reality on the ground for cable providers confronted with the challenge of over-the-top (OTT) services and websites such as YouTube, Facebook and Netflix. By itself, Netflix was using up 36 percent of all downstream Internet traffic from fixed access sources in North America as of October 2015, more than the next eight services combined.

The Internet and short attention spans are perfect complements. That is, easy access to online content like video encourages fast switching, while all of this jumping between sites and pages is facilitated by increasingly speedy Internet service.

The Microsoft study had a few suggestions for businesses adjusting to this new environment for entertainment:

  • Branded content
  • Native advertising
  • Shareable things (e.g., memes, listicles)

Not all of these approaches are easily transferrable to the cable business. However, there is similar opportunity in rolling out VOD services, which can help transform operators’ advertising strategies while also giving them a breadth of content options to keep up with today’s attention-challenged viewers.

VOD platforms such as Evolution Digital’s eVUE-TV™ provide a top-notch experience by simplifying access to thousands of TV shows and movies. Although it is unlikely that anyone could ever watch every show on a given VOD service, the scale and variety are huge assets at a time when it is harder than ever to resist the temptation to change the channel/show.

“19 percent of online viewers leave a video in the first 10 seconds.”

That Microsoft study revealed that 19 percent of all online viewers “defect” from what they are watching within the first 10 seconds. This habit is easy to understand in light of widespread habits such as clicking on similar YouTube videos to the side of the one you are currently watching, or scrolling past one Periscope broadcast to another in your Twitter feed.

For cable operators, this means customers jumping between shows, movies and channels. The old linear TV grid brings a lot to the table, but it is not exactly what everyone is looking for. Consumers may want on-demand access to a show that they did not catch when it aired. Or maybe it was never live-broadcast in the first place and is instead native to an OTT platform. A VOD platform, such as eVUE-TV, is perfect for these sorts of situations.

Attention spans may continue to be short in the years ahead. However, cable operators can keep pace by offering a wide range of content across both traditional TV and VOD platforms. And a solution for cable operators to consider is Evolution Digital’s IP Hybrid Set-Top Box, which aggregates this wide range of live and VOD content that not only makes search and discovery seamless, but also helps extend the attention spans of viewers who are looking to find what they want to watch quickly.

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