Photo courtesy Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library

When I was a child, my first pet was a goldfish.

I named it Goldie. Totally original, I know.

Goldie lived in a glass bowl decorated with neon-colored rocks and a tiny treasure chest that opened and closed to release bubbles. I’m sure when I brought her home from the pet store, she thought she’d landed in some kind of 1980s pirate hell.

I liked to watch Goldie swim around her bowl. And she liked to watch me.

When I did my homework or practiced my instrument or danced around my room to Phil Collins, she swam to the side of her bowl and stared at me. She could do this for hours. It would have been creepy had she not been a fish.

The statistic that some say ruined marketing

In 2015, large news organizations, including Time, The New York Times, and The Telegraph reported a single, mind-blowing finding from a new study by Microsoft.

The average human being’s attention span has shrunk to just eight seconds, about the same as a goldfish.

By the way, in researching this post, I found this great blog post from the University of Melbourne about the intelligence of goldfish. Their attention span is way longer than eight seconds.

The reports were grossly inaccurate

It turns out that the news organizations were not actually quoting the results of the Microsoft study. A BBC reporter investigated the origin of the goldfish statistic in 2017.

“All those references lead back to a 2015 report by the Consumer Insights team of Microsoft Canada, who surveyed 2,000 Canadians and also studied the brain activity of 112 people as they carried out various tasks. However, the figure that everyone picked up on – about our shrinking attention spans – did not actually come from Microsoft’s research. It appears in the report, but with a citation for another source called Statistic Brain.”

Simon Maybin, BBC World Service

The goldfish comparison has since been removed from Statistic Brain. And the original study from Microsoft is no longer listed on their website.

But it was too late. The damage was done.

Marketers were told to create short, scannable promotions, use clickbait titles, and make sure our blogs and videos were “snackable.” Promotions began to all look the same.

Nothing stood out. Everything we created lacked depth and interest. And people actually paid less attention to us.

A better way to promote your library

It’s true that humans have difficulty dealing with distractions. But it’s also true that when we are consuming quality content, we can focus.

There are two kinds of attention. Transient attention is a short-term response to a stimulus that temporarily attracts us or distracts our attention. It comes into play when you read a billboard or a sign, or watch a TikTok video.

Then there is sustained attention. This describes your ability to focus on something for an extended period.

We use sustained attention when we binge-watch an entire season of Stranger Things in a single day, read a good book cover to cover in one sitting, or attend a concert, play, or sporting event.

Sustained attention is where great experiences are found. It is also the basis for information processing and cognitive development. It is where real connections are made.

That means that if you can engage your cardholders’ sustained attention, your marketing will be memorable. And memorable marketing is more effective.

How do we do this exactly?

There are circumstances in which you will need to create short promotions that appeal to transient attention. Social media is a perfect example. So are printed signs. A few, well-written but interesting sentences, and an eye-catching design are required for those formats.

But many of your library promotions should aim for the sustained attention of your cardholders. Blog posts and videos are perfect examples.

These pieces of content should be as long as they need to be to tell a good story. That means you can create a video that runs 8 minutes or write a blog post that is more than 1000 words, as long as they are interesting and compelling. They must also contain two key features.

  • Emotion: The joy of finding a book, the fear of not getting a job, the frustration of another night of homework without any help… these are all emotions felt by our library’s customers. Other people can relate to these experiences and empathize. Emotion activates many portions of the brain, including the sensory, memory, and empathy sectors. The more active the brain is while consuming content, the more likely it is that the listener or reader will remember the story.
  • Conflict and a resolution. Your sustained attention marketing must include some conflict and a problem or situation that is resolved. Without conflict, your story risks being flat and unmemorable.

How to get started

Pick one tactic to focus on. Your print or online newsletter is a perfect place to start. Take six months and watch as your audience transforms.

I’m speaking from experience here. In my former library job, I turned our print program calendar into a magazine filled with stories.

It took our community members about 10 to 15 minutes to read the magazine. That’s time they spent thinking about the library, empathizing with the patrons and staff in our stories, and committing our stories to memory.

And guess what happened? Our circulation increased. Database usage grew. Our brand awareness grew. We passed a levy to fund renovations to old libraries.

Podcasts are also a perfect example of long-form library content that holds attention. Most episodes last between 20 to 30 minutes. That’s an invaluable time in which you are talking directly to your community!

Your cardholders aren’t goldfish. They are real people with attention spans that can be used to our advantage. You can help them to make a lasting and meaningful connection to the library with longer, interesting, memorable content.

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