A New Marketing Solution to Short Attention Spans? It’s as Old as Life Itself.

Written by
Sebastian Jespersen
A New Marketing Solution to Short Attention Spans? It’s as Old as Life Itself.

If you’re like me, you learn a lot about contemporary media and viewing behavior from observing your family. With a device in their hands, my children ritually swipe, swipe, or move next, and next again, until they get bored after about three minutes and look for another activity.

According to an article in The Independent, those who use the app for over 90 minutes can narrow their collective attention span over time.  Fast-format apps are “rewiring” the brains of a younger generation, to expect instant gratification rather than taking in information slowly and understanding. Apparently, kids can watch over 1,000 TikToks in an hour yet they can hardly recall a single video.

I’m not opposed to TikTok. I am concerned, though, about how to captivate the mind for longer periods. To me, storytelling is at the heart of this issue, and I do believe that marketers have a key role to play.

Storytelling makes us human

Storytelling has both enthralled and shaped humanity for more than four thousand years. No wonder it holds an important place in every culture and society. Storytelling also takes time. There is no instant gratification in a realm that must develop plot, characters, purpose, and passion. All good stories—from the fables told by Aesop to the magic of Disney—have a universal language that everyone can understand. They fuel the imagination, stimulate a range of emotions, and convey values that unite people. One could argue that stories make us human. They are also a powerful means of teaching, influencing, leading, and inspiring.

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Particularly at this time of year, I recall the enchantment of A Christmas Carol and the talent of Charles Dickens as he brings to life the characters of Ebenezer Scrooge, the ghost of Jacob Marley, and poor Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim—all who stay indelibly imprinted on our memories and our humanity in terms of treating people with kindness and generosity. I can never forget my father reading the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen aloud. Those stories—from "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Little Mermaid," "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," "The Red Shoes," "The Princess and the Pea," "The Snow Queen," "The Ugly Duckling" to "The Little Match Girl"—all have become embedded in my own consciousness and, I’d argue, within the collective culture and imagination of most people throughout the world.

A wonderful example of contemporary storytelling during the holiday season comes from Nimbus Beds in the UK. Their short film on YouTube was created in the style of the famed John Lewis Christmas commercials. This December theme, though, tugs at our hearts by raising the issue of loneliness among the elderly. While the film opens with sad images of loss, it soon changes when an elderly man is given the gift of a dog. Watch here to see how Nimbus Beds integrates its product, but the Christmas message of caring for others comes out loud and clear through memorable storytelling.

In our era of rapidly-emerging media powered by technology, we are seeing brands move away from interruptive advertising and towards content that provides value in the way of information and entertainment—in other words, creative storytelling. Today, people of all ages are exposed to a remarkable amount of digital sensory stimuli—literally every second of the day—often from an increasing number of screens in our lives. Digital marketing experts estimate that most Americans are exposed to roughly 10,000 ad messages daily. Media researchers also find that up to 80% of an advertisement elicits no active attention at all. In this environment where attention is constantly demanded, human attention is becoming a scarce commodity.  

In an attention-deficit society, successful brands are those that stand out by not merely gaining our attention but keeping our attention by becoming “entangled” in our daily lives and even within long-lasting memories, much like the power of stories. Brands that embrace a Share of Life® model drive customer lifetime satisfaction, value, and rewards. Instead of putting all efforts into trying to trigger an immediate sale, these brands aim to understand a customer’s lifestyle and routines.  Weaving a brand into the fabric of a customer’s day is the ultimate interconnection between brand and customer, and the essence of gaining Share of Life®.

Whether explaining a service, introducing a company, raising funds, advocating an issue, seeking collaboration, imparting knowledge, conveying values, or selling a product, storytelling matters.  And today, a digital story can be told through a variety of media, immersive technology, interactive means, and even through gaming or crafting a Metaverse.

There are many examples of great brand storytelling. Apple opted to use real-life stories that describe how their products benefit users, rather than focus on technical jargon about the working of a computer or smartphone. TOMS, best known for their One for One® model with shoes, used storytelling to show how business can improve lives. By sharing stories of both customers and the people they serve through purchases, TOMS created a movement that has not only increased sales but built a community.

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Google’s “Reunion” story for its Search product in India is an extraordinary example of using storytelling to show how a product’s functionality can also bring people together. The India-Pakistan partition in 1947 separated many friends and families overnight.  A granddaughter in India decides to surprise her grandfather on his birthday by reuniting him with his childhood friend (who is now in Pakistan) after over 6 decades of separation, with a little help from Google Search.

The New York Times is also using immersive, digital storytelling to augment how they report the news, so they can literally bring key topics to life and provide deeper understanding. Their story enabled readers to experience the effects of one of California’s most devasting wildfires. The Times was able to reconstruct a 3-D model of the Dixie fire’s massive thunderclouds by using high-resolution radar data, which picked up ash particles from smoke plumes and water droplets from clouds.  The interactive results are as fascinating as they are overwhelming.

The opportunity for Marketers

Anthropologists emphasize that storytelling is vital to human existence. They tell us that in the same way the brain recognizes visual patterns to distinguish a face from a flower or audial patterns to determine specific sounds and voices, it also detects patterns in information. Stories are recognizable patterns, and in these forms, people find meaning.  We use stories to make sense of our world and to share that understanding with others.

Marketers have an opportunity and a responsibility regarding storytelling and specifically for overcoming shortened attention spans. Short videos on TikTok and YouTube alone do not build a brand. Actions alone do not offer the complexity, ongoing interest, or emotional appeal of stories. Marketers can make a difference. They can find the means to captivate a new generation through storytelling.

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