Fact or Fiction: The Average Online Attention Span of 8 Seconds

by Sarah Hayes on September 06, 2016


By now you may have heard that people have an "8 second online attention span." It's a common piece of marketing gossip, but the truth is a little more complex - and much more interesting for the future of your blog!

The "8 Second" Study and Why People Believe It

The whole "8 second online attention span" belief came from one particular study. It was conducted by Microsoft and focused only on Canadians (this may or may not have affected the results, eh). The sample size was very healthy, around 2,200 people over the age of 18, and over a hundred people were also studied more closely using EEG equipment to look at brain activity. In other words, it was statistically sound research. The result was that attention spans were around 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds from a study about a decade earlier.

Immediately, headlines sprang up around the Internet claiming that "Humans now have attention spans shorter than goldfish!" and variations on the subject (which isn't actually true, even about goldfish). But it was catchy, and so it caught on: But the truth is a little trickier. The Microsoft study also showed that people are getting better at multitasking in our digital age, which indicates that the 8-second rule is not so much about getting distracted, but more about how much time we allot for a specific subject before moving onto another subject – with the option to move back to the first subject again if necessary. We do this all the time when comparing several different web articles and finally choosing the one that seems the most informative on a subject.

In summary, it's best to think of the 8-second rule as a measure of modern day online multitasking habits, not strict, Dory-like distraction. It's also good to remember that this is the result of a single, limited study that hasn't been confirmed by other research yet.

Pushback: People Love Long Articles

There are other reasons to think that the 8-second rule doesn't cover the whole story. One of the most interesting, which we've already mentioned before, is a study from Medium that shows the optimal length of a blog post is about 7 minutes of reading time from start to finish. That's not just Google's algorithm, that's what real readers appear to prefer. They like in-depth content that they can read for an appreciable amount of time. Those 7 minutes work out to well above 1,000 words of content, and certainly more than a few seconds spent on a site.

So what's going on here? How can people have an 8-second focus limit but prefer 7-minute articles? Well, the first answer is that more research needs to be done – we only have a small amount of data on both sides to look at. The second answer is that several different factors could be at work here, and we're going to talk about a few them.

3 Factors at Work When It Comes to Online Attention Span

  • Time of Day: People at work are often busy: We know strange but true (insert smile)! When people are scanning articles at work, either while working on other tasks or while taking a break, they may be more aware of time and more likely to move on quickly. During off hours, people may be more willing to spend time perusing posts that they wouldn't have looked at while working.
  • The "Interest" Conversion: There may well be an invisible sort of conversion happening during the first few seconds of looking at a post. People watch for subject, tone, legibility, style, graphics and much more. If it passes their internal test, the conversion is a success and they pause their multitasking habits for a closer look. If the conversion doesn't work, they move on. This is a version of the once-famous Five Second Test, and its impact shouldn't be ignored.
  • Expectations: Online audiences have a lot of experience with content. With that experience comes certain assumptions about what we click on. If it's a news story, we expect a quick burst of facts. If it's an FAQ, we expect a quick burst of, well, FAQs. If it's a thought piece, we expect a longer post with high-level concepts. This all feeds into how long we are prepared to spend on any post.

What do you think? Are these factors important, or do you think something else is at work here? Should we have included age or industry as important factors as well? There's a lot to think about!


About Us 21 Handshake

Sarah Hayes

Project Manager at 21 Handshake, a strategic marketing company, driven to grow relationship-driven businesses. A self described life long learner that thrives on detail, I love bringing these skills to the table to help others succeed.

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