Is bitesize the right size? Long vs short form content in the age of on-demand viewing

I was thinking recently about the accepted wisdom that modern readers have a limited attention span. Readers, we are told, like ‘bite-size’ content, and furthermore, web content consumption analytics prove this as fact.

The narrative is that we’re all so constantly busy, so hooked on social media, and so addicted to our smartphones and immediate gratification that we no longer have either the time or inclination to engage with anything that has depth. ‘Generation Xers’ like me get to condescend to butterfly millennials. I’ve always been uneasy about this ‘fact’. Something didn’t sit right with me and its been kicking around at the back of my mind for years.

At first I thought my discomfort was driven by professional vanity: as a former publisher I was personally invested in the idea of making high value content that readers love. When you find the content you are emotionally invested in isn’t getting much attention you tend to question your own capability: if you and your team have agonised over content for depth and insight, slaving over the words, research stats and design till the final, polished, and – to your mind at least – quality piece is born, you’re apt to react to criticism of your work like a parent who’s been told their newborn is ugly.

This sends you off on an – at least partial – sulk which you privately acknowledge is potentially clouding your judgement. Damn. They must be right about bitesize: there’s comparatively few clicks so I’m just being conceited. The seed of doubt is sown – and you cut to 350 words for everything.

I’ve come to the conclusion that my unease wasn’t driven by vanity, but by a content truth that is uncomfortable for different reasons, and that it’s a truth doesn’t conflict with the marketing analytics. I reached this viewpoint by observing and thinking about how I engage with content on websites and social media: how I reach content, how I react to it, and how I behave with it.

How I end up on content websites

There’s nearly always a marketing trigger for my engagement. It’s a melange: sometimes I get an email for a newsletter or blog or service I’ve subscribed to. A headline catches my eye, piques my attention and right forefinger clicks on the mouse.

It might be a ‘smartpush’ style notification. It might be a link on twitter, a post from someone I’m connected to – or ‘promoted’ – on LinkedIn. Sometimes it’s a content ad on Taboola or Outbrain or Dianomi. Rarely, its Instagram (but mostly because I only follow musicians). Not Facebook because I deleted it. Sometimes it’s a google search.

All these approaches are the usual ways people discover marketing content, and they have something in common: short, pithy headlines. They are the hook to catch the reader. Good headline writers aren’t thinking about getting the right reader, they are thinking about getting the largest possible number of them. . . . . its pretty much the art of clickbait.

This leads the reader to a generally negative experience with – and attitude to – marketing content: much of what we are offered is poor, clichéd, hackneyed – another content marketing common denominator is that for every piece written by a genuine thought leader there’s at least 500 pieces of poorly constructed guff. Credit to Nils Footman at CopyLab for introducing me to this video – a must-watch comedic pillorying for would-be thought leaders.

What I do when I get there

So, the marketing gets me to the destination site . . . what happens then? Well, arriving as I do with very low expectations, I surf. My expectation is that I might find a worthy needle in the content haystack. Click-look-exit. If this is what everyone else is doing, does it mean that we like bitesize content, or, does it mean that we don’t like what you’ve produced, don’t find it valuable and decide not to engage?

Maybe there hasn’t been a change in human biology, maybe, our attention span isn’t shifting, maybe we’re just offered so much guff we’re walking away, and maybe your analytics aren’t telling you bitesize is best. . . . but that your content isn’t cutting the mustard. Is the bitesize analytic like the way we use Netflix?

Skimming the contents index until we find something we want to watch, then bingeing an entire series over ten hours? Maybe its time we focused on what people do engage with, instead of getting confused about the stuff they are trying tell us they aren’t really that interested in.


Tom Wright is director, content & performance marketing services for Incisive Works.