The Content Consumption Fallacy

Audiences are ready to binge. Don’t give them clickbait—give them something worth their time.

One of the great disservices perpetrated by the glut of content marketing thought leadership has been seeding the idea that the way people consume media is fundamentally changing. That consumer preference is evolving before our eyes, and that we must take heed or wallow in obscurity. 

“8 content consumption trends to watch for!” “It’s all about AR in 2020!” “Voice-activated content is the future!”

Some platform releases a new feature or format, some people start using it, and there you have it: a seismic shift in human behavior. It’s never based on an insight about how people are, just evidence that people will consume what’s in front of them regardless of how it’s presented. 

This narrative has led us to an increasingly crude view of our audiences. That over time, consumers are becoming driveling toddlers who respond only to sensational audiovisual stimulation, who lack any attention span and who must be spoon-fed information with pictures and third-grade sentences if they’re expected to bother at all. 

So we hack down our content. We keep the keywords but strip out the depth, insight and storytelling. If we see poor scroll depth, we lop off what’s below the fold and make it less useful, not more. If we see low video completes, we make shorter videos, increasing the chance that it ends before viewers realize it was useless. We chase the engagement metric and avoid the truth: that the content wasn’t compelling in the first place. 

The truth about content consumption is as simple as it is old: If the content is good enough, people will consume it. 

The truth is, consumers will go to extreme, almost comical lengths to consume content they really value, and will engage more vigorously with it than they ever have before. 

Myth-Busting the Short Attention Span

According to a Hollywood Reporter poll, 60 percent of consumers now binge-watch TV shows, taking in more than two hours per sitting. Why don’t TV shows have to be two minutes or less?

A study of more than 2,500 books on notable bestseller lists over the past few decades revealed that our favorite books are getting longer, not shorter, and that e-readers like Kindle cause people to read longer books, not shorter ones, because they make it easier to find content you’ll love and to bring it with you everywhere. So, yes, we still read long-form, and technology has only entrenched the habit, not crippled it.

According to podcast expert Pacific Content, the average podcast lasts 41 minutes and 31 seconds. It also cites research that 93 percent of people listen to all or most of the episodes they start, which is far higher than what you see for one-minute videos. In other words, one of our most engaging, fastest-growing mediums is the modern-day version of 1950s radio, the expert of which is our National Public Radio, not some new-age VR venture.

You’ll be surprised to know that the average mobile YouTube session is 40 minutes. People may have short attention spans for pre-roll ads, but when they engage with the content they set out to, they do it relentlessly, going down rabbit holes, particularly on how-to content, which is growing 70 percent year over year. They’re using a quick-hitting video platform to go deep on a topic—not just for the dopamine hit, but to challenge themselves with something new. 

One such skill that a growing number of people are busy acquiring is for chess: a game that takes a long time to play, dedication over years to master, extreme focus and concentration, and that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. It’s everything today’s content consumers are not supposed to be, yet it’s growing. Chess videos have been watched 350 million times since January. 

Turn On Your Audience’s Brains

Whether it’s chess, sudoku or brain games, long-form literature or plodding radio serials, nine-hour Netflix nights or endless gaming stints, consumers are begging for a meaty piece of content to transfix them, relieve them of the din of buzzing ads and clickbait, and switch them on.

What’s true for entertainment content is also true for marketing content. Consumers want brands to open their minds and inspire them. After all, that’s what thought leadership content does best—it makes you think. And when your audience’s minds are open, your brand will earn both recognition and credibility.

And of course, you must have an actual idea. Your content program must be an idea, not a repository of categorical topics and references. There is something unique and interesting about your company, your product, your expertise or your perspective. It’s there—find it. Create something that will deeply involve people in it.

Yes, understand where your specific targets or segments tend to consume content, but do what’s right for the idea. How can you portray your message in the most meaningful, notable, interesting way? What will make it sing?

The fundamental question is: What can you uniquely offer that your audience would truly value? The answer is not a format or type or channel. It’s the content. So make it good.


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