There’s so much debate around attention spans, with the general consensus being that the influx of screens and new technology has significantly reduced our ability to focus. While the famous “attention span of a goldfish” theory has since been debunked, research by the University of California has found that in the space of 20 years, attention spans are now three-times shorter, and averaging at just 47 seconds.

If this is anything to go by, then there’s every chance I’ve lost some of you already! It presents a real challenge for comms teams and marketeers in delivering rich and impactful content.

However with the right content, written and structured in the right way, it is still possible to keep readers engaged. Below, we set out some of the challenges and the potential remedies.

Long-form is still king

On one hand, we’re being told how easily distracted we are and unable to focus for long periods of time. Yet on the other, it is widely known how long-form content is highly regarded by search platforms such as Google.

In fact, research of more than 20,000 keywords by SerpIQ revealed that the top 10 search results on Google averaged more than 2,000 words in length. It would certainly be impressive to read that in 47 seconds! The reason is though that when done properly, this content perfectly suits Google’s E-E-A-T algorithm (expertise, experience, authority, trustworthiness).

Long-form content is great for search engine optimisation (SEO), with the extra length providing the space to demonstrate knowledge and experience and properly unpack a subject in a useful and informative way. In addition, there is greater opportunity to include backlinks – which only increases authority, and it is well suited to be shared across social channels.

But how do we reconcile this with the shifting attention spans of our readers and website visitors? There’s no question that we as businesses, brands, agencies and marketeers have to up our game to ensure that are content is not only optimised for online and for search, but for our readers too.

After all, if attention spans were so short, three-hour movie epics such as Oppenheimer or Killers of Flower Moon would never see the light of day. Neither would a whole raft of riveting novels or series.

4 long-form wins for short attention spans

1. Frame value early

If you’d like a reader to invest in your content and stick with it until the end, you need to give them a reason to stay. It’s really important to set out early what value the reader is going to get from the content and follow through with it. In addition to front loading content, you can also provide a roadmap at the outset, explaining what the reader will learn or gain from the piece of content.

2. Make it easy to read

Just as important is making your content super accessible and easy to read. Massive blocks of text are not just unattractive and hard to read, but they are prone to being skimmed or skipped entirely. High quality long-form content combines short paragraphs and clear sub-headings. It can also include bullet points or lists such as this to break-up sections and draw the reader’s eye to bite-sized segments.

3. Answer a question

In many cases, a reader can be served your content by asking a question. Long-form content is a fantastic way to provide that answer in an authoritative and informative way. Another benefit of using short paragraphs is the opportunity for Google to serve your answer directly in the search results as a featured snippet. This answer can then expanded on further in the piece.

4. Avoid boilerplate or a ChatGPT greatest hits

High-quality, high value doesn’t have to mean highfalutin. It can be conversational and doesn’t have to be super corporate. If a blog or article feels like a company boilerplate or full or unnecessary jargon, it can quickly become a turn-off for readers. That’s not to say it shouldn’t follow a tone of voice or a brand’s messaging, but the balance has to be found. Also, if a reader wanted an AI mash-up, they would have asked ChatGPT themselves!

Match the message to the medium

Above all, content creators have to balance the preferences of search and ranking with the preferences of readers. Just because long-form is the go-to for the likes of Google, it doesn’t mean all comms must follow this format. If anything, long-form isn’t always the answer and should be one part of a broad content strategy which supports all types of topics and requirements.

As an example, I recently needed to change the order of pages in Microsoft Word – rock and roll I know! My instinct was to find the solution through Google and use a high ranking result to solve my query. However it didn’t. Not only did the fix not work, but the blog was a ranking exercise that quickly lost me in the history of not just Microsoft Word but the history of page formatting in the software. Do you see what I mean?

The first task in overcoming short attention spans is good quality content that is delivered in the most suitable way to provide real value.

Short form content most definitely has its place, whether it is providing a quick answer to a reader’s question, a brief overview of a topic or sharing the latest news and views. Away from written articles, there’s also infographics, webinars and video content which is a highly engaging and hugely popular way to share information.

If you managed to stay until the end, congratulations! Not only have you proven that your attention span is far better than that of a goldfish, but you have gained and understanding of how to generate impactful content that hopefully keeps the attention of readers and keeps them invested.