With the rapid adoption of smart phones and tablet computers and the expansion of free Wi-Fi, hotspots, and reliable 3G we live in an always on world. You only have to take a look around you in any public location, be it a coffee shop, supermarket, or on a commuter train to see that people are accessing the web on a constant basis. A 2011 AOP website usage study showed that a UK internet user visited 2,518 web pages across 81 domains and 53 sessions in November 2011. That's a lot of content!
This is great for web based businesses as it means their audience is not only growing with each technological advance, but is also reachable 24/7. Whereas previously you may have been relying on key consumption times when people were able to be sat at their computer, now you have a consumer who you can reach with your product all through the day.
This always on world and the huge amounts of content available on the internet has significant implications for the modern day consumers attention span. It has even greater implications for the generation of people who have never known anything but high speed broadband and internet access, the future adult consumer. A recent Pew Internet study in the US suggests that while students coming through the schools system in this always on world benefit from instant access to a wealth of information from numerous sources, their attention span and desire for in depth analysis is consequently diminished. The current generation of internet consumers live in a world of "instant gratification and quick fixes" which leads to a "loss of patience and a lack of deep thinking".
In a world of instant gratification and where an alternative website is just a mouse click away website owners need to find ways to firstly grab the attention of a user, and then keep it for long enough to get your message across. If you don't, their cursor will be heading to the back button and on to a competitor in the blink of an eye.
Methods for doing this are nothing new. In fact most of them have been learnt from traditional print media where grabbing the attention and making the key points easily accessible and digestible is something that is built into how they structure their content. Yet many websites do not follow the main rules for engaging the always on generation.
So what rules should the modern day publisher or website owner be following when structuring their web pages in a world of short attention spans?
Don't make people wait for the information – before even looking at how you are going to present information on your web pages you need to make sure the page loads as quickly as possible. Studies have shown that 32% of consumers will start abandoning slow sites between one and five seconds. Bounce rate can be improved by up to 30% with the reduction of page size and resulting speed improvements. A one second delay in page load time can result in 11% fewer page views, 16% decreased customer satisfaction and 7% lost conversions.
Include key information upfront and begin with the end in mind – a time poor website visitor is looking for instant clarification they are in the right place. By including key information up front you can convince the user to read on rather than exit to another information source. By deciding what you want the reader to take out from a page, you can tailor your upfront copy accordingly.
Use bullet point for key facts or USPs to make them stand out and be easily digestible – a well-known method for making key information easy to locate and eye catching, however far too much website content if built around paragraph after paragraph of text.
Use sub headings with descriptive wording to enable users to jump to the appropriate section if they wish – the modern day consumer will scan a page to try and pick out the piece of information they are looking for. By understanding how users scan web pages
and having sub heading which are descriptive to the section content you enable users to easily navigate your content and find the relevant section for them.
Keep page content short and punchy and split any detailed content out into secondary pages if applicable – with the limited attention span and desire for instant gratification of the modern day internet consumer just seeing the scroll bar shrink into oblivion can be enough for them to not even start reading a page. If you have lots of content on a subject split it out into relevant, easily digestible pages that allow people to read one piece without necessarily having to continue on to the next.
Use rich media and alternative content presentation to keep users attention – the use of video as an online communication medium is well documented. But also think about other ways of representing information such as images, graphs and other visual forms. Novelty and the presentation of something that is new and unexpected is one of the key elements of the Reticular Activation System (RAS) which focuses attention. Playing to this trigger through the representation information in alternative forms will help you get your message across effectively.
Present information in a logical, sequential pattern – another element of RAS, by presenting information in a logical sequence helps to keep the attention of the user and allows you to take them through some logical steps to conclusion and get all of your key points across.
Tell the reader what they need, and want, to know, and no more – it sounds simple but far too many people don't follow this rule. You want to tell a consumer, or prospect, everything they need to know, but once you have done this, stop. If your goal is an online transaction then get them to this point and present them with the option to purchase. If you are producing information give them all the top line stats they need to get your message across, and leave anything supplementary for those that chose to find it.
If conversion is your goal, make the path clear – once you have made your pitch, and given the user all the reasons they should purchase your product, make it clear where they need to go next. Too many website go through their sales pitch and at the point where they have the reader hooked it is unclear how a user goes from intention, through to action. You need to present the user with easy routes through to conversion once they are convinced they should buy from you. Again, understanding how users scan and view web pages will aid in where and how you should present your calls to action.
And the final point in operating a website in a world of short attention spans is to use the data at your disposal.
Almost all analytics providers will provide you with data on bounce rates, pages visited, time on site, time on page and many other measures you can use to optimise your approach to content. The leading providers will also show you where users clicked within a page or where their mouse hovered giving you further indication of what they were looking at and how you can tailor your pages accordingly. There are numerous free tools you can use such as Google's site speed tool which can help you understand where you may not have optimal performance.
By using all of the tools at your disposal and following the rules above you should be able to cater for the always on generation and prosper in this modern day world of low attention spans.
Rob Weatherhead is head of digital operations at MediaCom. He blogs at robweatherhead.co.uk and tweets at @robweatherhead .
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