Attention span for Web video

Peter at Video 2 Zero wrote a provocative post, with data — Ideal length for web video — a couple of weeks ago. The gist is, fewer people stick with an online video to the end if the video is longer. Longer than what, you ask? Just longer. In general, people open a video, start watching, and then begin dropping off.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s the same way you act when you open any Web page — you look or scan or read until you feel like you’ve had enough. Then you leave.

I don’t think this is any different from the way people read printed newspapers. You start, and eventually your attention wanes, and then you quit.

Now, before you start arguing — yes, sometimes I have searched for exactly that information (that video, that Web page, that story, etc.), and then I am likely to stick with it to the very end. So your fascinating video, or text story (about the cause of a plane crash, or the rescue of some avalanche survivors, or the future of our 401(k)’s) might be long, but I am already committed to it, and I am predisposed to watch (or read) the whole thing.

Most things that we encounter online do not meet that criterion. Most things we encounter online are not the exact thing we have been searching for.

So we sample. We take a little taste and move on to the next thing.

A 17-year-old recently told me that sometimes she starts looking at YouTube and somehow, before she knows it, three hours have gone by. “Really? Three hours?” I asked her. “Seriously,” she replied. But you know darned well she did not watch every video she opened to the end. YouTube is a place for sampling, tasting, surfing. It makes it really easy (and irresistible) to have another, and another, because of that “Related” box on the side.

I take two lessons from this:

  1. A shorter, extremely tight and fascinating video has more chance of being watched; it is more likely to succeed in communicating its message, because more people would finish watching it.
  2. News sites need to put more effort into facilitation of this sampling behavior, and production of long items (videos or text) is counterproductive to that effort.

Don’t take that to mean I want to dumb things down. I do not. But the array of information has to become smarter (like YouTube’s arrays), and the complex (long) pieces must be reconfigured into smaller pieces, to adapt to the sampling behavior of the audience.

16 Comments on “Attention span for Web video

  1. Poetry is trying to fit too much information
    into too small of a space,
    and prose is trying to fit too little information
    into too much space.

    Essentially,
    we are witnessing the death of prose
    and the triumph of poetry..

  2. This is known (in some circles) as the “berry picking” model for search. It explains that users experiment with different queries and approaches as they browse around, looking for an answer. It is being applied on lots of sites (like YouTube) to provide more facets (links, info) to help users find whatever they may be looking for.

    Try a Google search for “berry picking search”.

  3. To put the onus on the viewer is tempting – limited attention span, they chose the wrong video etc. But, for me personally, boredom/obviousness is a huge factor.

    Brahms in his rules for composition elevated “understanding of counterpoint” to pole position – video composers should listen.

    Check out this video – produced by Media Storm for Starbucks:

    http://media.starbucks.com.edgesuite.net/dotcom/quicktime/Starbucks_MediaStorm_sml.mov

    If you get past the first 30 seconds, do let me know, was it really that frikkin predictable?

    I’d love to hear that I was wrong. Video is a linear medium, and web video the most linear of all forms of video (commercials excepted). Go ahead surprise me.

  4. @Peter – Not sure what your question is about the Starbucks video. I couldn’t watch it — I immediately felt bored. The music is smarmy, and the big talking heads are not saying anything new.

  5. @Mindy my question about the Mediastorm video was –

    Is it really that boring?

  6. Even though I live in a place where I often can’t stream and have to wait for whole videos to download in my cache, I’m so grateful for the ones that can sustain my interest, long or short. I’m not teaching at the moment, but when I start up again, I’ll be showing Michael Wesch’s video about the anthropology of YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPAO-lZ4_hU). Maybe you’ve already posted about it; I didn’t do my due diligence. It’s what I want every presentation I do from here on out to be. It’s 50+ minutes long. And it’s all about people who spend hours rooting around for video on the Web and why they do it. It works not because it’s long but because it tells a story. I’d say that still counts as the best criteria for whether someone will pay attention to what we write or create.

  7. me toooo! by the way, i’ve read and reread your video that means something post many times–and incorporated the links into my workshops. it is definitely a keeper!

  8. Yep, it takes a lot more craft, discipline and talent to produce a compelling story in 2:20 versus 6-plus minutes.

    Just ask John Lennon and Paul McCartney – many of their compelling compositions cover a lot of ground in a short span of time.

    Once you master the technique of building your story arcs in a tighter time frame then your longer form work can get better.

    Robb Montgomery
    – Visual Editors

  9. Hi Mindy, love your posting. I completely agree.

    I was advised a few years ago that video was hot on the web and I should try to get as much as possible for my website, but as I began looking at various competing video from news wires, I found few passed my own personal boredom threshold. I really wondered what people were talking about. In the end, I’ve come to realize what’s always true in journalism … if the content isn’t compelling, don’t waste your resources. And with visual media, image quality always matters.

    For example, I’ve found that a lot of video lacks compelling images or a compelling story. Here in Japan is a good example. News video is very popular here, especially on mobile phones. But the most popular video is always something that screams to be viewed. Raw footage of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination or raw footage of a Japanese photography shot in Myanmar. Voiced reports of some offbeat relevant and original news story, story telling enhanced by the images. Or, entertainment and celebrity gossip.

    My conclusion: a successful video should be surprising and compelling enough to make you sit forward and forget you are sitting at a computer. It should make you, perhaps sit back and take your finger off your mouse. …

    just my opinion.

    katie ratcliffe

  10. Pingback: Strange Attractor » Blog Archive » links for 2009-01-09

  11. It is largely the net that has created video as a commodity.

    Try convincing the suit with the checkbook that your 2 minute video clip is worth as much as the other guy’s multimedia showpiece.

  12. This is like the famous quote, attributed to Pascal and others, that “If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.”

    But it seems to me that there’s more than an either-or option here.

    Do only short, snappy videos that the most amount of people will watch the whole way. But if a handful of people want to see a much longer piece, why deny them?

    Do a long video, and let people get as much as they want from it before leaving. But if they leave at a point when they’re bored, maybe they won’t remember being satisfied.

    Do the short, focused video, but also provide a longer, background, reference video for people who want to see everything.

  13. Pingback: Link wrap: the demise or otherwise of NY Times, iTunes for news and free Al Jazeera footage | The Evolving Newsroom

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