There is a pervasive statistic that is destroying library marketing. It’s repeated by marketers, educators, civic leaders, parents, and pastors and it’s driving me crazy. I’m calling bull**it.

The average human being has an attention span of just eight seconds.

This idea was born out of a study by Microsoft Corp. and was reported by many large news organizations, including Time, The New York Times, and The Telegraph in May of 2015. Researchers in Canada surveyed 2,000 participants and studied the brain activity of 112 others using electroencephalograms (EEGs). Microsoft found that since the year 2000, the average attention span dropped from 12 seconds to eight seconds. According to Time, the study highlights the effects of an increasingly digitized lifestyle on the brain.

“Heavy multi-screeners find it difficult to filter out irrelevant stimuli — they’re more easily distracted by multiple streams of media,” the report read.

This finding was repeated nearly a dozen times by speakers at the Content Marketing World conference last year and in most of the webinars I attended. When referring to the statistic, most people will point out that humans now have an attention span shorter than that of a goldfish. A goldfish, in case you are wondering, reportedly has a 9-second attention span.

Please stop.  I know this tidbit makes for a great soundbite. It’s startling, disturbing… and misleading. It has huge implications for library marketing. We read that stat and we think, my gosh, I have to do something crazy to grab attention. I have to be BIG, BOLD, and LOUD or I’ll lose my audience. Then we create noise. Then our cardholders tune us out. Then we’re back to square one.

Here’s the big problem I have with the 8-second attention span statistic. There are actually TWO kinds of attention. The attention span studied by Microsoft is called transient attention. Transient attention is a short-term response to a stimulus that temporarily attracts/distracts attention. It comes into play when you read a billboard or a sign or watch a Snapchat video. It has a value but it’s not the goal post for great library marketing.

Library marketers really need to aim for engaging selective sustained attention span. Selective attention is the process of focusing on a particular object for an extended period. This is the attention span we use when we binge-watch 14 episodes of the Walking Dead in a single day, or when we read a good book cover to cover, or when we attend a concert, play, or sporting event. Sustained attention is where great experiences are found and great memories are made.  If you can engage your cardholders’ sustained attention, your marketing is going to have a greater impact.

I’m not going to lie to you. Sustained attention is hard to capture. If it were easy, everyone would be winning at marketing. But this is exactly the area that is best served by library content marketing. It’s an opportunity for libraries to distinguish themselves from their competitors.

If you blog or shoot a video or create a content-based magazine instead of a program calendar, then you are aiming for the sustained attention span of your cardholders.  Find a way to tell a story or share information that can help your cardholders, and not constantly trying to sell to them with one-off messages. Stories and experiences will have a lasting impact on your library’s relationship with your cardholders. That’s how we keep people coming back to the library, even when the economy is good and resources are plenty.  Library content marketing creates a real relationship with your cardholders.

Yes, it’s a lot of work. That’s why it’s important to refer to your library strategy when determining how to work content marketing into your overall marketing efforts.  Pick one tactic to focus on. Take six months and watch as your audience transforms. This happened for us when we turned our newsletter/program calendar into a full-fledged content marketing asset.

It wasn’t easy. I had to do some convincing in nearly every department. It took more time to write. I had to think, plan, and strategize more.  But guess what? Our circulation has increased. Our brand awareness has grown. Cardholders are actually asking to read Links and are coming to the Library on the day of its release seeking a copy.

We get to tell our story on our terms.  That’s invaluable. It takes the average person about 10-15 minutes to read the magazine–time they spend thinking about the library and committing our story to memory. You can’t put a price on that.

Your cardholders aren’t goldfish. They are real people and you can help them to make a lasting and meaningful connection to the library. Don’t worry so much about the 8-second attention span. Aim higher, and you’ll see better results over time.

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