How can brands capture attention in the era of information overload

About the author

Lucy Whitaker prepared this article as part of a CIPR Professional PR Diploma assignment while studying with PR Academy.

Avril Lavigne's first video on TikTok has gained over 6 million likes
Avril Lavigne's first video on TikTok has gained over 6 million likes

Millions of users worldwide now opt for digital media sources to access information and consume content. In the overcrowded market, how can your brand stand out?

Lucy Whitaker

There is an overwhelming amount of information available, with online sources and social media platforms strategically targeting consumers to capture their attention.

In 2015, a report by the Consumer Insights team of Microsoft Canada claimed that the average human attention is now shorter than a goldfish. This grabbed headlines all over the world at reputable sources such as The New York Times, The Telegraph and Time Magazine giving the ‘goldfish effect’ further traction. The theory has been debated online, with counterarguments suggesting an average attention span does not exist as it’s very much task dependant.

Herbert A Simon, Nobel Prize-winning economist, political scientist and cognitive psychologist researched the link between an information-rich world and attention scarcity. In a 1971 study he founded the term attention economy, theorising that attention is a scarce resource like money and poignantly quoted that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”.

This raises an important question; is human attention span shortening or is there another explanation?

Arguably, attention span is not shortening, instead we are living in an era of information overload.

An average attention span suggests that we all react to the same stimuli in the same way, however, that doesn’t explain how some brands successfully capture attention whilst others don’t.

In an era of information overload brands need to understand consumer behaviours and deliver content that stands out from the crowd.

The way we consume content is changing

The introduction of social media has revolutionised the way that we consume content. With the convenience of smartphones and tablets it is quite literally at our fingertips.

According to a report by Ofcom, people in the UK spent on average 3 hours 37 minutes online per day on computers, tablets and smartphones in 2020. Whilst that may seem like a lot, it is nowhere near enough to compete with the 4.6 billion pieces of content produced daily. That covers everything from tweets, emails to memes. That is a huge amount of information to contend with and it continues to build daily.

There are 4.48 billion social media users around the world equating to almost 57 percent of the total global population. With over half of the global population on social media, many are using this as their main source to access information, entertainment and to stay connected. Global internet users cited some of the top reasons for using social media such as staying in touch with friends and family, filling up spare time, reading news stories and finding funny or entertaining content.

Social media offers a global stage to share content, ideas and interact with consumers. But, within an overcrowded market reaching your audience is becoming increasingly difficult. Not only do you need to compete with endless amounts of information but develop competitive strategies and remain relevant to your audience.

Understanding emerging trends, user behaviours and what truly engages your audience is the key to getting your message heard.

Short-form is the future

Short-form video has become one of the most popular ways for many people to access entertainment and keep informed.  Short-form video challenges the traditional media practices and offers an innovative, quick and easy way for users to consume content.

Video content is an effective way to improve brand reputation, advertise products or services and offer how-to-guides to consumers. People share videos at twice the rate of any other form of content and 84% of people say they’ve bought a product or service by watching a brand’s video.

Video can be more accessible and engaging to users with 72% of consumers stating that they prefer video to text marketing. This trend is amplified in the younger demographic as 71% of Gen Z spend more than 3 hours every day watching online videos.

With attention in high demand, shorter form pieces are far superior to elicit a response than longer videos.

Videos under 15 seconds are more likely to be shared than those that are between 30 and 60 seconds, with only 5% prepared to watch a video beyond two minutes.

At the forefront of the short-form video movement is social media newcomer, TikTok. The app was catapulted to popularity in 2020 and generated the most downloads for any app ever in a quarter. The platform has over 1 billion monthly active users that can view and post videos from 15 seconds to 60 seconds long. TikTok recently expanded its max length to 3 minutes in 2021, but videos between 9 and 15 seconds tend to perform the best on the platform.

The short-sharp content on TikTok enables users to consume a lot of content from different creators without compromising their valuable time and attention. On average TikTok users spend 52 minutes per day on the platform, meaning they can access a wide-range of content within a shorter timescale.

Many other social media platforms have incorporated copycat TikTok features to keep up with the demand for interactive short videos such as “Instagram Reels” and “Youtube Shorts”. Whether your brand is on TikTok or a competitor platform, short-form videos are a great opportunity to give your audience a behind-the-scenes view that is highly engaging.

Short-form videos started off an emerging trend but remains a staple for brands and creators alike.

The rise of TikTok

TikTok offers a unique user experience compared to other social media platforms, with an advanced algorithm that places content firmly at the centre of the user experience.

You don’t need to follow a single account to get started on TikTok. Users watch a sequence of videos on their ‘For You” page which is created by the algorithm. The more you use the app, the better your recommendations get – offering a far superior and personalised experience. It is a bold move away from the usual follow and friend features found on the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

TikTok has gained its place as a cultural phenomenon especially with the younger generation. TikTok has accelerated the rise of unknown creators into internet stardom.

That’s because it doesn’t matter who is posting, but what you are posting.

TikTok creates an environment that encourages content creation with their range of features. Creators no longer need an expensive media kit, they can access thousands of sounds, effects, and filters to bring their vision to life. The accessibility and ease of use had resulted in mass content creation as 83% of TikTok users have posted a video.

Celebrities caught onto the potential reach on TikTok which is often unparalleled to other platforms. Avril Lavigne recently joined and her first video and gained a massive 22.9 million views and 1.6 million followers in just 3 days. To put this into context, the video on TikTok gained 6 million likes (off 2 million followers) in comparison to 50k likes (off 20.6 million followers) on Twitter.

The reach on TikTok is unprecedented and arguably attributed to the algorithm that delivers content that people want to see it. That said, not every post will receive likes and there is no guarantee that you will become a viral sensation. Audiences need and expect more, good content isn’t enough anymore it must be remarkable.

A Content Marketing strategy is crucial to build and maintain audience attention and build brand presence. According to Content Marketing Institute, in 2020 the top ways marketers distribute content organically are social media platforms. Content marketing costs 62% less than traditional marketing and it generates about 3 times as many leads.

A great example of Content Marketing on TikTok is the airline brand RyanAir. They currently have 1.4 million followers and have amassed a huge 39.1 million likes on their videos.

RyanAir has capitalised on the popularity of TikTok challenges and trends that foster a sense of community on the platform and amplify reach. In their most popular video (5.1 million likes) they joined the viral TikTok trend #CouchGuy. The viral video shows a RyanAir flight attendant entering the cockpit to surprise her ‘pilot boyfriend’ to find him with someone else. This tongue and cheek approach went viral on TikTok with users praising the social media team for “always delivering”.

This is an excellent example of short-form videos that are immersive and build a connection with their target audience whilst remaining entertaining. As a result, a mass number of users now subscribe to big brands to see behind-the-scenes content.

Storytelling to strengthen your brand

To create remarkable content you need to engage, inspire and resonate with your audience.

Storytelling isn’t new, it’s at the core of the human experience. Storytelling delivers a message to your audience that is memorable. The defining element of a story is emotion, whether it’s humour, fear or tension it has a way of staying with us and creates a memorable experience. Telling stories enables the audience to sit back, listen and take it all in without being told what they should do or think.

Storytelling can elevate your brand and act as a vehicle to highlight your vision, mission, and values.

There are so many valuable storytelling techniques to make it highly appealing and effective to your audience.  An effective way to structure your stories is using the CAR acronym: Context, Action and Result or otherwise known as the Hero’s Journey.

One of the best examples of this used in business is the widely loved and anticipated John Lewis Christmas advert. In 2019, John Lewis launched a joint campaign with sister company Waitrose featuring Edgar the Dragon.

The plot begins with Edgar facing adversity as he finds himself in many predicaments such as burning the Christmas decorations and melting the ice rink. In fear of ruining Christmas, he locks himself away. His friend, a little girl Ava adopts the hero character and comes to rescue with the perfect Christmas present for him – a Christmas pudding. Edgar now has a place where he feels accepted and fulfilled.

The heart-warming story delivers a memorable message that no one should be left out especially at Christmas. They align these values back to their brand message with the closing strapline “Show them how much you care”. The advert currently has 697,100 views on Youtube and each year the advert continues to spark joy and interest in their audience.

Not all is lost

Given the current digital environment I would argue that attention spans haven’t necessarily shorted, information has increased – significantly. In a world of information overload, attention is a scarce and valuable resource and to make your brand stand out from the crowd you must consider, audience, channels, and most importantly content.

Social media has changed the way we consume content so selecting channels that are suitable and tailored to your target audience is crucial. When targeting audiences, it’s important to understand where they like to consume content. In the age of social media, consumers are looking at a variety of content across many channels, they want us to get to the point – quickly. Short-form video gives consumers the option to view more content within the time available to them, not only is it more efficient but it builds a one-on-one relationship and creates trust.The rise of TikTok has demonstrated that keeping up with emerging trends, platforms and channels can maximise brand reach.

To capture attention and build a relationship the content must be original, relevant, and entertaining. A Content Marketing strategy can build brand awareness, consumer trust and result in higher profit or compliance. To create remarkable content that inspires and engages your audience, storytelling is highly effective. Delivering your brand message through storytelling is one of the best ways to create a memorable and emotive experience.

In an information-rich society, we don’t need more content we need more relevant content.

References

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Berkeley Economic Review. 2021. Paying Attention: The Attention Economy. Accessed 2 October 2021, available at: https://econreview.berkeley.edu/paying-attention-the-attention-economy/

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