Dealing with goldfish - why direct marketing may be in trouble | DMA

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Dealing with goldfish - why direct marketing may be in trouble


Listen very carefully. I can say this only once. Direct marketing may be in deep trouble.

Thats’s because our job is to engage with an audience that is stressed to the point of ill-health, and whose attention span is now officially less than that of a goldfish.

Our attention span has been determined to be eight seconds. That’s less than the time it took you to read the first two paragraphs of this article. The reason that our attention spans are decreasing is that we overwhelmed with information, distractions and white noise. And we can’t cope.

Recent research by Microsoft shows that people now typically lose attention after just eight seconds - down from 12 seconds in 2000 (roughy the start of the digital age) - and one second less than the attention span of a goldfish.

Technology is presenting us with so many different ways to communicate that we can’t stay focused on anything for very long. Forget the idea of multi-tasking- something that women particularly have traditionally prided themselves upon. Our brains just aren’t wired for it. When we “multi-task” for we are simply switching our attention repeatedly from one task to another and another. This is serial, not parallel, processing of information.

Microsoft’s survey looked at 2,000 Canadians and monitored the brain activity of another 112 using electroencephalograms. The study purports to show that the ability of people to multi-task has improved through the use of technology. Closer analysis of what the survey says doesn’t really bear this out at all.

The findings have been used to support a Microsoft ad campaign to target consumers according to the way they process information. According to the software company, there are three types of consumer: Those who do one thing at a time, those who do (or try to do) lots of different things at once - and those who fall somewhere in the middle. Really - we needed a survey to come up with this theory? These genetic types are dressed up with pseudoscientific names. For example, people who concentrate on single projects are “Attention Ninjas” apparently.

People who have higher educational qualifications are able to sustain their levels of concentration says the report - neatly confusing cause and effect

While the conclusions of the report are, I would suggest, somewhat dodgy, it’s findings are interesting. Half of those surveyed automatically reach for their phone when nothing is occupying their attention. And according to another study by National Centre for Biotechnology Information and the National Library of Medicine in the US, 79 per cent of respondents regularly use portable devices while watching TV

We crave information but as Bruce Morton, a researcher with the University of Western Ontario's Brain and Mind Institute,says: "Just because we may be allocating our attention differently as a function of the technologies we may be using, it doesn't mean that the way our attention can actually function has changed.”

In other words, we can only do one thing properly at a time and (surprise, surprise) our brains have not evolved in just 15 years - despite what Microsoft seem to suggest. The psychologist Professor Cary Cooper, an expert in stress management, takes an opposing view and believes that we are attempting to take in more information than is good for us.

Despite our collective love of technology, in Britain we work longer hours than any other country in the developed world. However, at the same time, the UK is bottom of the G7 nations’ league for productivity. Instead of using technology to improve people’s working lives and to increase productivity, it has become our task master, he told the British Psychological Society’s conference in Liverpool.

There was a time - say 40 years or so ago when analysts were convinced the automation and computerisation would free up the population. The challenge would be to understand how to help people to spend their increasing amounts of leisure time. Instead, argues Professor Cooper, we are serving technology - and not the other way around.

The reason this has happened, he says, is because of the enthusiasm with which we have seized everyday technology and built it into our lives. He told the conference: ’We have embraced technology almost too much. Emails are damaging us, we don’t control them – they control us.

‘People say they have got through their emails by the end of day, but that’s not work. People should be banned from sending emails to each other in the same building. They should be discouraged from checking emails after work, when they should be spending time with their family and returning to work refreshed.

‘A company in California shuts the server down after-hours and maybe that’s what we have to do, to re-boot ourselves as human beings.Checking emails on holiday – that’s sick,’ he added.

Prof. Cooper, who advises the Government on health and wellbeing at work, says that he is about to embark on a study of the effect of emails on the workplace and their impact on family life, because it had recently emerged as a major issue. He said that technology such as laptops, iPads and smart watches were extending the working week.

‘When you go out to a restaurant there are people picking up emails on their knees, and some of it is work. Technology, rather than being an enabler, is creating more stress’ he concluded.

As direct marketeers we are dealing with an audience with an ever-shortening attention span that is addicted to technology but stressed out as a result. What chance do we have to get our messages through?

We can still communicate effectively but we need to understand the new rules of the game. And the main rule is that we can’t rely on our audience to pay attention for very long.

To engage attention and deliver messages effectively we need to adhere to four key principles:





Be quick

You may have more than eight seconds - but don’t count on it. Get to the point because there will never be an ideal time to engage with the consumer. The context in which your message is received is critically important - but it’s largely outside your control. A piece of direct mail opened at the start of a busy week is in the hands of an alert consumer but it’s competing against the demands of a host of other issues. The same item opened at the end of a busy day may have less to compete against but will be received by someone who is most likely tired, jaded and distracted by the events of the day.

A hefty multi-item direct mail package that contains what Alan Sugar once memorably called “the mug’s eyeful’ is an exercise in vanity and little else.

Be clear

Eight seconds doesn’t give you too much time to play with verbal tricks, design foibles or less than obvious concepts. The need for clarity is a function of the requirement to be quick. Make your message unambiguous and your offer easily understood.

Be consistent

In a short timescales it makes sense to leverage the power of the brand that you are promoting. All the emotional baggage and value that comes as an inherent part of a successful brand doesn’t need to be explained - it’s already understood by the recipient. Exploit the brand and squeeze every last ounce of benefit from it that you can manage. Choices of papers, colours, typography, finishes, inks and wrappings all send subliminal messages about brand value and worth.


Having honed your message down to the size of a cocktail hors d’oeuvre, you need to be sure that it’s being handed over to the right consumer. You need to sweat the big data to ensure that you are taking the right message to the right people. The greater the accuracy of your mailing list, the greater the value it will add to your campaign.

So is direct marketing in trouble? If you have got this far and remember the question that I posed at the beginning, congratulations on attaining the state of Attention Ninja.

Direct marketing needs to understand the demands that technology is placing on all of us - or that we are allowing it to place upon us, to be more accurate. We will succeed when we understand that we are seeking to communicate with a society that is stressed and easily distracted - and modify our messages accordingly.

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