Storytelling and the Myth of Diminishing Attention Spans

Opinion: Longer forms of content can engage audiences more deeply

Maybe marketers just need to tell better stories
Michail_Petrov-96/iStock

For some time now, we’ve heard that in marketing, shorter is better. From video to copy, snackable is now the preferred adjective for everything.

The accompanying narrative goes like this: People are living in a sea of information and entertainment, an endless supply of amazing stimuli, which is diminishing everyone’s attention spans to the point where marketers have literally seconds to convey the entirety of their message. In an endless scroll, the best marketers can hope for is a thumb-stopping moment, and even when a thumb stops and we have someone’s attention, it’s only for a moment.

I’m here to tell you that people have plenty of attention when they are truly captivated by a compelling story. So maybe marketers just need to tell better stories.

So, how did we get here? To start, as brands and media companies have pivoted toward video, we’ve seen more visual storytelling. At the same time, marketers continually try to convince audiences to sit through an entire video. In this never-ending chase, videos became shorter, partially supporting the notion that attention spans are shorter.

But anyone who’s seen the type of deep immersion young people display when playing video games or carefully curating social media content can attest to the fact that millennials and Generation Z do have substantial attention spans. The key is knowing how to engage them.

At Wattpad, where I lead a team connecting brands with our 65 million users around the world, we see people spending billions of hours deeply engaged in reading and writing each month, some of which includes reading and writing branded content.

Storytelling is not just about reaching an audience once, but about truly understanding an audience and how they communicate. Part of this means using data to understand what audiences want. But it also means taking the time to understand and connect with audiences on their own terms, in an authentic, meaningful way.

So, what exactly does this look like? Sometimes it means finding innovative ways to empower audiences to tell their own stories.

Last year, Wattpad worked with Syfy to develop a writing contest to promote its hit show, The Magicians. Syfy invited Wattpad users to write their own stories about a main character, with the chance to win cash prizes and even have the story adapted into a digital short. By creating an authentic connection with new and existing fans, the campaign let people engage with the brand on their own terms, as users submitted hundreds of stories and then spent nearly 3 million minutes reading them. This is the type of connection and engagement that storytelling can produce.

The first step to telling better stories is realizing that short-form isn’t always better. Longer forms of content can engage audiences more deeply, for longer and with a more lasting impact. This is exactly what every brand is looking for.

Whether it’s video or written words, people pay attention to compelling narratives. Just look at television for a shift in this direction. TV was previously a world of one-off episodes. But today, the best and most successful shows use longer, multiseason arcs to develop plots and characters. Film writers now regularly move into TV because the longer-form format allows them to immerse viewers even more than a film allows. At the same time, films are also longer. We’ve moved from 90-minutes as the standard runtime for a film to 120+ minutes.

Some of the best arguments for longer-form stories are the kinds of watching we now see with Netflix, YouTube and Twitch. Each has changed how people consume and create videos. People spend hours binging Netflix series and the user-generated content on YouTube and Twitch. The stories told on each platform are vastly different, but they capture the attention of millions each day. People can follow the story arc of a 13-episode series or the real-life activities of a rising Influencer. The key is great storytelling that captivates and keep people coming back.