Our attention spans are rapidly diminishing. In a little over a decade, the average human attention span dropped from 12 to eight seconds (Microsoft, 2015). Even goldfish have longer attention spans: they can concentrate for an average of nine seconds! And these are results from a seven-year-old study; the situation’s probably even worse today.

But how important is attention span in paid media? Before we deepdive into this question, let’s travel back a few years. Before 2018, (paid) marketing was a cookie paradise: marketers could freely track all kinds of customer information and use it for all kinds of targeting. But in 2018, the GDPR (and Safari ITP) went into effect and the cookie paradise turned into a regulatory obstacle course. In 2021, Apple went one step further and removed all data tracking apps from its devices. And now, although the deadline has been extended to early 2024, Google is also banning third-party cookies. This means that there is less and less data for (paid) marketing to work with.

So, what are we seeing online as a result? What’s influencing marketers, and how? Here are a few examples:

  1. Algorithms & automation
    Advertising platforms rely heavily on their algorithms. They ask us to trust in automation, put all our data into a big pile, and let their algorithms work their magic. This might sound ideal, but for most marketers, it’s our biggest nightmare because it gives us no control over who we reach, what formats we employ, or what content we use.
  2. Statistical models for attribution
    The loss of data also means problems in reporting and attribution, as there is less data available to draw conclusions. Thus, while not often used now, statistical models (such as MROI and MMM) will be more meaningful in the future. But these advanced solutions are not available for the average marketer.
  3. Theory
    With less data available, marketers sometimes feel the urge to get creative and start reinventing the wheel. The new things that are created usually don’t work, which brings them back to square one. A better solution would be to re-examine theories that worked in the past and see if new conclusions can be drawn that could work in the future too.
  4. Content
    While online consumer behaviour has changed dramatically over the past few years, their preferred content has remained pretty much the same. With the focus solely on snackable content, our attention span is diminishing; after all, this is the most reliable trend of the past five years. Fortunately, no strict regulations or adjustments have been made to ad content.

Attention span in paid media

What does the general decrease of our attention span mean for attention span in paid media? On an average day, we see thousands of ads. In fact, we’re exposed to an average of 10,000 ads per day (Meindersma, 2020). If you look at your own scrolling or swiping behaviour, you’ll realise that you don’t spend nine seconds on each social media post. Research by Facebook IQ (2016) showed that the average attention span on social media is just two seconds, during which the consumer decides whether they want to click on an ad or not. To deal with this barrage of ads, we’ve developed a filter for advertising, so it’s increasingly important to stand out from the crowd and align with your consumer.

Paid media trends for short attention spans

There are many trends in the paid media landscape that consider our brief attention span and we have listed a few:

  1. Shortform
    One of the most obvious trends is short forms. These are short videos about a catchy topic. Think of YouTube shorts, Instagram stories, and TikTok videos.
  2. User-generated Content (UGC)
    Research by Demba et al. (2019) shows that people trust products or services promoted by their peers (i.e., user-generated content) more than content provided by brands, which is beneficial for sales. In fact, 83% of people trust UGC over brand communication, significantly impacting consumer attention.
  3. Search behaviour
    Along with our online behaviour, our search behaviour is changing too. From the traditional way of Googling answers to questions, we’re switching to using voice searches and other apps. In fact, for Gen Z, TikTok is more popular than Google for their searches (Huang, 2022).

The value of two seconds of brand exposure on social media

According to Nielsen (Williams, 2017), video impressions that span under two seconds can amount to 38% of brand recall, 23% of brand awareness, and 25% of purchase intent. It’s obvious that these two seconds can make a lasting impression. But how can you stand out in this limited amount of time? What kind of content strategy generates the most effective brand recall (how memorable and compelling is your content?), brand awareness (how often and in how many ways are you pushing your content?), and purchase intention?

“It’s about getting the right message (content quality), at the right time (scale and frequency), to the right audience (strategy).” Sjoerd Lops, Artefact Benelux

Making the most of those two seconds

In today’s environment, companies say data is power and targeting makes the biggest difference, but a Nielsen Catalina study (illustration) shows that creatives actually have the biggest impact. Given that targeting will become less accurate due to data regulations, this is something to keep in mind.

(Source: Nielsen Catalina Research via the Advertising Research Foundation May 2017)

Use the six pillars of attention

To make the most of these two seconds of attention, it’s crucial to decide which communication style generates the best interaction for each consumer. There are different types of consumers for each step of the marketing funnel that your communication style must be adapted to. A first-time buyer requires a different approach than a frequent buyer. A 2020 study conducted by Klaas Weima revealed six strategies you can use to capture consumer attention during those two precious seconds:

  • Emotion: evoke positive emotions with your consumer: use humour, for example.

  • Status: people like to show off. This is something you can use to your advantage. Make your consumer stand out, think about designer clothing for instance.

  • New: to spark the interest of your consumer, offer them something new or surprising.

  • Inclusion: make your consumers feel like they’re part of your brand, for example by adding them to a VIP list.

  • Reward: reward your consumers when they’re frequent buyers and show them they’re appreciated. One good way is by giving them something extra for their 10th purchase.

  • Help: make life a little easier for your (potential) customers. Offer them something useful.

Obviously, not all strategies are suitable for every type of consumer. The reward strategy isn’t as applicable to a first-time buyer as it is to consumers further down the funnel. Yet we often see companies using the same communication style for first-time buyers as for repeat buyers. It’s crucial to think about your different types of consumers first and base your decisions regarding communication style on the things that make them different:

  1. How does it benefit the type of consumer?
  2. Why does information stick?
  3. Which values are important?
  4. When are consumers sharing your brand story?

Key take-aways

At Artefact, we know you make better decisions when you think them through carefully. This is why we work with a structural testing framework with objectives and hypotheses that minimise subjective opinions and maximise objectivity.

Here are four key take-aways for retaining attention in paid media:

  1. Personalise: tailor your content to your different types of consumers.
  2. K.I.S.S.: Keep It Short and Simple. Our current attention span is short and tomorrow it will be even shorter.
  3. Visualise: people don’t much like to read; they prefer to watch or listen. Snackable content is key.
  4. Test, test, test: theory is good, data is better, but ultimately, every business is unique.


Demba, D., Chiliya, N., Chuchu, T., & Ndoro, T. (2019). How user-generated content advertising influences consumer attitudes, trust and purchase intention of products and services. Communicare: Journal for Communication Sciences in Southern Africa, 38(1), 136-149.

Facebook IQ. (2016, April 20). Capturing Attention in Feed: The Science Behind Effective Video Creative. Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/business/news/insights/capturing-attention-feed-video-creative

Huang, K. (2022, September 17). For Gen Z, TikTok Is the New Search Engine. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/16/technology/gen-z-tiktok-search-engine.html

Meindersma, C. (2020, December 3). Aandachtsmarketing: hoe val je nog op tussen al die andere bedrijven? Frankwatching. https://www.frankwatching.com/archive/2020/12/03/aandachtsmarketing/

Microsoft. (2015, season-01). Attention spans. https://sherpapg.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/MAS.pdf

Weima, K. (2019). Aandachtsmarketing (1st ed.). De Vrije Uitgevers.

Williams, R. (2017, June 30). Facebook: Why mobile video ads must work fast. Marketing Dive.

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