Depending upon which study, source, anecdote, or observation you wish to rely, the average American’s attention span averages six to nine seconds. (So the fact that you’re even reading this sentence means you are—rejoice—above average). Whenever this statistic pops up on Twitter or in a TED talk or at Cannes (the advertising festival, not the Gathering of All Things French and/or Clooney), marketing and ad types of a certain stripe work themselves up into seven different kinds of lather. Then, nearly instantaneously, the industry produces an allegedly paradigm-shifting remedy to the public’s increasing need for the new and shiny. After many blogs are written, books promoted, and conferences spoken at, the cycle begins anew.
While I have nothing scientific to refute the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span hypothesis, nor the power to single-handedly stop the bloviating of the self-appointed marketing gurus (or is it ninjas?), I do posit that we—specifically, owners and caretakers of brands—are looking at the wrong side of the coin. The real problem is not that consumers have short attention spans. It’s that we give them so little of interest to look at.
In other words, we’re boring.
Okay, maybe we as people aren’t boring. Maybe our companies or products aren’t boring. Maybe our newest offering even has lasers. Lasers have never been boring. But our marketing too often is. Instead of telling compelling mini-stories that prod a chuckle, jerk a tear, or elicit a smile, we reformat PowerPoint slides to make the most bullet-point-intensive print ad ever. We run Twitter feeds that do nothing but push deals and make occasional-yet-still-self-serving references to winning sports teams. We pore over spreadsheets trying to figure out how many impressions a banner ad will get without giving a second thought to the type of impression it will make.
Boring is never a good adjective nor, unless you’re drilling for shale, a good verb. The only action you can bore someone into is ignoring you; therefore, boredom never equals sales. And if you really want to spend 10 percent of your revenue (the rule-of-thumb for establishing growth-oriented marketing budgets) simply to go unnoticed, I’d recommend saving up for a stealth fighter or passel of ninjas instead of blowing it on an ad campaign. The ninjas, at least, can keep Bob in accounting from absconding with all the donuts.
Too many marketers—and that doesn’t just mean CMOs or ad agency types; if you own a small business, guess what, you’re a marketer—mistakenly believe that an ineffective marketing message does them no harm. But, aside from being an absurd justification for anything, that isn’t always true. Just because a message wasn’t acted upon doesn’t mean it wasn’t seen. Whether stuck in rush hour looking at your billboard, staring at a TV in a sports bar as your commercial interrupts the game, or clicking “skip this ad” (as in yours) on their way to read an online op-ed, people often do witness boring messages. And here’s the rub: While no one remembers boring ads, they never forget how boring your brand is. So a boring campaign not only wastes time and money, it can squander whatever brand equity you already had.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Even a boring product is no excuse for a boring ad. After all, everything serves some relevant purpose to someone. And that’s the key. What is your relevant message? Not the message you want to say, but the message your target might actually care about and respond to. It doesn’t matter if that message is the same one it’s been for the past quarter century—if it’s still relevant, just do it.
So relevance is the foundation of your message. Without it the most interesting piece of information in the world will evaporate seconds after it’s viewed, yet relevance alone does not equal interesting. That is where the artistry comes in. The combination of personality, tone of voice, skillful storytelling, and respect for the audience that keeps people from hitting the triple-speed fast-forward button on their DVRs. Or has them smiling in traffic. Or retweeting 140 characters of something with actual value to them, their followers, and you. Or even reading the copy on your product packaging because it, too, holds their interest.
The good news is that you don’t have to be Apple or Target or Harley-Davidson or Chipotle to pull this off. You do have to put in the effort to define your brand’s core characteristics, hone a personality and voice, and deliver both interesting messages and a great experience. Do this consistently (that’s consistently, not perfectly) and one day you’ll discover your brand—instead of dying the slow death of 10,000 yawns—is championed by the very people who once wouldn’t give it the time of day. Let alone their cash.
Jason Fox is the Executive Creative Director at Webster, a design and advertising agency in Omaha, and the voice behind the popular Twitter feed @leeclowsbeard.