The disappearing attention spans of consumers.

Today I was talking with one of my company’s longtime clients about how much of a challenge it is to attract the attention of people in target marketing campaigns.

Her view is that it’s become progressively more difficult over the past dozen years or so.

Empirical research bears this out, too. Using data from a variety of sources including Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, Facebook and Google, Statistic Brain Research Institute‘s Attention Span Statistics show that the average attention span for an “event” on one of these platforms was 8.25 seconds in 2015.

Compare that to 15 years earlier, when the average attention span for similar events was 12.0 seconds.

That’s a reduction in attention span time of nearly one-third.

Considering Internet browsing statistics more specifically, an analysis of ~60,000 web page views found these behaviors:

  • Percent of page views that lasted more than 10 minutes: ~4%
  • % of page views that lasted fewer than 4 seconds: ~17%
  • % of words read on web pages that contain ~100 words or less: ~49%
  • % of words read on an average web page (around ~600 words): ~28%

The same study discovered what surely must be an important reason why attention spans have been contracting. How’s this tidy statistic:  The average number of times per hour that an office worker checks his or her e-mail inbox is … 30 times.

Stats like the ones above help explain why my client – and so many others just like her – are finding it harder than ever to attract and engage their prospects.

Fortunately, factors like good content and good design can help surmount these difficulties. It’s just that marketers have to try harder than ever to achieve a level of engagement that used to come so easily.

More results from the Statistic Brain Research Institute study can be found here.

Al-Jazeera axes the “Comments” section on its English-language website.

What took them so long?

This past week, al-Jazeera.com, the English-language website run by the Qatar-based international media company, announced that it is disabling the comments section on its site.

In a written statement, the company complained that what was originally designed to “serve as a forum for thoughtful and intelligent debate that would allow our global audience to engage with one another” had devolved into a free-for-all, with the comments sections “hijacked by users hiding behind pseudonyms spewing vitriol, bigotry, racism and sectarianism.”

“The possibility of having any form of debate was virtually nonexistent,” the al-Jazeera statement added – as if any further explanation for their action was needed.

I have a comment of my own in response to al-Jazeera: “Welcome to reality.”

Al-Jazeera is hardly an innocuous website in cyberspace. It reports on some of the most explosive developments affecting the most volatile regions of the world.  Considering the sparring parties in these never-ending conflicts, complaining about “sectarianism” is almost laughable.

Is there a more “sectarian” group of people on the face of the earth than those who are exorcised about the inhabitants of the Middle East – or of Muslims, Christians and Jews in general? I don’t know of any.

As for the comments section being a repository of derision and hate, how is anyone surprised? What other result could one expect – especially since there was little or no attempt by al-Jazeera personnel to moderate the comments section?

The fact is, unmoderated comments sections that also allow for poster anonymity are a blanket invitation for “the inmates running the asylum.” Comments that are left in these “anything’s allowed” forums chase the well-intentioned participants away – and fast.

On the other hand, I’ve found plenty of well-moderated forums and comments sections that are as valuable as the underlying articles themselves.

That doesn’t happen all by itself, of course. Good moderation takes effective policies – requiring commentators to identify themselves for a start.  It also requires an ever-watchful eye.

Evidently, al-Jazeera and others like them found the not-insignificant effort required to perform this degree of moderation to be unworthy of their time or financial resources. And as a result, their forums became worthless.

And now they’re history.

Why are online map locations so sucky so often?

How many times have you noticed location data on Google Maps and other online mapping services that are out-of-date or just plain wrong? I encounter it quite often.

It hits close to home, too. While most of my company’s clients don’t usually have reason to visit our company’s office (because they’re from out of state or otherwise situated pretty far away from our location in Chestertown, MD), for the longest while Google Maps’s pin for our company pointed viewers to … a stretch of weeds in an empty lot.

It turns out, the situation isn’t uncommon. Recently, the Wawa gas-and-food chain hired an outside firm to verify its location data on Google, Facebook and Foursquare.  What Wawa found was that some 2,000 address entries had been created by users, including duplicate entries and ones with incorrect information.

Unlike a company like mine which doesn’t rely on foot traffic for business, for a company like Wawa, that’s the lifeblood of its operations. As such, Wawa is a high-volume advertiser with numerous campaigns and promotions going at once — including ones on crowdsourced driving and traffic apps like Google’s Waze.

With so much misleading location data swirling around, the last thing a company needs to see is a scathing review appearing on social media because someone was left staring at a patch of weeds in an empty lot instead being able to redeem a new digital coupon for a gourmet cookie or whatever.

Problems with incorrect mapping don’t happen just because of user-generated bad data, either. As in my own company’s case, the address information can be completely accurate – and yet somehow the map pin associated with it is misplaced.

Companies such as MomentFeed and Ignite Technologies have been established whose purpose is to identify and clean up bad map data such as this. It can’t be a one-and-done effort, either; most companies find that it’s yet another task that needs continuing attention – much like e-mail database list hygiene activities.

Perhaps the worst online map data clanger I’ve read about was a retail store whose pin location placed it 800 miles east of the New Jersey coastline in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  What’s the most spectacular mapping fail you’ve come across personally?

This LinkedIn sayonara message says it all.

Over the past several years, it’s been painfully evident to me as well as many other people that LinkedIn has become a sort of Potemkin Village regarding its professional groups.

While many groups boast enviable membership levels, there’s been precious little going on with them.

It’s almost as if the vast majority of people who signed up for membership in these groups did so only to be “seen” as being active in them – without really caring at all about actually interacting with other members.

And if any more proof were needed, try advertising your product or brand on LinkedIn.

Crickets.

Today I received the following message from Alex Clarke, digital content manager and moderator of the B2B Marketing LinkedIn group. You know them:  publishers of B2B Marketing, one of the most well-respected media properties in the marketing field.

We’ll let the Alex Clarke memo speak for itself:

What ever happened to LinkedIn Groups? What was once a bustling metropolis, teeming with valuable discussion and like-minded peers sharing success and insight has now become a desolate, post-apocalyptic wasteland – home only to spammers and tumbleweed. 

We’re sad, because, like many other groups, our 70,000+ strong LinkedIn community has become a stagnant place, despite constant love and attention and our best efforts to breathe life into its lonely corridors. 

That’s why we’re moving to a new home … Facebook: bit.ly/B2BGroupFB. 

We’re aiming to build a similar – and ultimately, better – community on this platform, with an eye on providing B2B marketers with a place to seek advice, share success, and connect with like-minded professionals in a well-moderated environment. 

We’ll still drop in to keep an eye on the LinkedIn Group, continuing to moderate discussions and approve new members, but much of our effort will be invested in building a brand-new community on Facebook. Many of you will already know each other, but please feel free to say hello!  We’re really excited to see where this goes, thanks for coming along with us.

So, while B2B Marketing will maintain a default presence on LinkedIn, what’s clear is that it’s abandoning that social platform in favor of one where it feels it will find more success.

Who knows if Facebook will ultimately prove the better fit for professional interaction. On the face of it, LinkedIn would seem better-aligned for the professional world as compared to than the “friends / family / hobbies / virulent politics / cat videos” orientation of Facebook.

Time will tell, of course.

Either way, this is a huge indictment of LinkedIn and its failure to build a presence in the cyberworld that goes beyond being a shingle for newly minted “business consultants,” or a place for people to park their resumes until the time comes when they’re ready to seek a new job.

It’s quite a disappointment, actually.

Programmatic ad buying takes a hit.

There are some interesting new trends we’re now seeing in programmatic ad buying. For years, purchasing online ads programmatically instead of directly with specific publishers or media companies has been on a steady increase.  No more.

MediaRadar has just released its latest Consumer Advertising Report covering ad spending, formats and buying patterns. The new report states that programmatic ad buying declined ~12% when comparing the first quarter of 2017 to the same period in 2016.

More specifically, whereas ~45,000 advertisers purchased advertising programmatically in Q1 2016, that figure has dropped to around ~39,500 for the same quarter this year.

This change in fortunes may come as a surprise to some. The market has generally been bullish on programmatic ad buying because it is far less labor-intensive to administrator those types of programs compared to direct advertising programs.

There have been ongoing concerns about the potential of fraud, the lack of transparency on ad pricing, and control over where advertisers’ placements actually appear, but up until now, these concerns weren’t strong enough to reverse the steady migration to programmatic buying.

Todd Krizelman, CEO of MediaRadar, had this to say about the new findings:

“For many years, the transition of dollars from direct ad buying to programmatic seemed inevitable, and impossible to roll back. But the near-constant drumbeat of concern over brand safety and fraud in the first six months of 2017 has slowed the tide.  There’s more buying of direct advertising, especially sponsored editorial, and programmatically there is a ‘flight to quality’.”

Krizelman touches on another major new finding from the MediaRadar report: how much better native advertising performs over traditional ad units. Audiences tend to look at advertorials more frequently than display ads, and the clickthrough rates on mobile native advertising, in particular, are running four times higher than what mobile display ads garner.

Not surprisingly, the top market categories for native advertising are ones which lend themselves well to short, pithy stories. Travel, entertainment, home, food and apparel categories score well, as do financial and real estate stories.

The MediaRadar report is based on some pretty exhaustive statistics, with data analyzed from more than 265,000 advertisers covering the buying of digital, native, mobile, video, e-mail and print advertising. For more detailed findings, follow this link.

ESPN: What the heck just happened … and who’s to blame?

Last week, ESPN announced the layoffs of some 100 staffers, most of them on-air talent. This comes after layoffs of ~300 other personnel in 2015, but since those were behind-the-scenes employees, the news didn’t seem as momentous.

There are several factors coming together that make life particularly difficult for the sports network. One big problem is the commitment ESPN has made to pay top-dollar for the right to air professional sports events, particularly NFL and NBA games.

These financial commitments are set in stone and are made well into the future, which means that ESPN is committed to high long-term fixed costs (broadcast rights) in exchange for what’s turning out to be declining variable revenues (viewer subscription fees and advertising).

This isn’t a very good financial model at all.

Which brings us to the second big factor: declining subscribers.

Since 2011, the network has lost ~15 million subscribers. So far in 2017, the network has experienced an average loss of ~10,000 people per day.

The financial impact of these losses is significant. All of those lost subscribers amounts to more than $1.3 billion per year in money that’s no longer going on ESPN’s books.

Sports journalist Clay Travis predicts that if the current trajectory of subscriber losses continues, ESPN will begin losing money in 2021. (And that’s assuming the subscriber base losses don’t accelerate, an assumption that might be a little too rosy.)

The fundamental question is why so many people are no longer subscribing to ESPN. The predictable answer is because services like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon, with their on-demand services, are squeezing cable/satellite TV and its subscription business model.

One way Disney (ESPN’s parent company) has attempted to maximize viewer subscription revenues over the years has been by bundling the network with other, less lucrative Disney media properties like the History Channel, Vice, Disney Junior and the Lifetime Movie Network. In the Disney constellation of channels, ESPN has been the acknowledged “driver” of subscription revenues all along, with die-hard sports fans being willing to subsidize the other Disney channels – often never watched by these subscribers – as the price of access.

But something else is happening now:  ESPN itself has begun to lose viewers as well.

According to television industry publication Broadcasting & Cable, ESPN’s viewership rating has declined ~7% so far this year.  ESPN2’s rating is down even further – an eye-popping ~34%.

Percentages like those aren’t driven by “sidebar” incidental factors. Instead, they cut to the core of the programming and the content that’s being offered.

If there’s one programming factor that’s tracked nearly on point with ESPN’s viewership declines, it’s been the explosion in “sports-talk” programming versus actual “sports game” programming at the network. As Townhall opinion journalist Sean Davis has written:

“If you talk to sports fans and to people who have watched ESPN religiously for most of their lives, they’ll tell you that the problem is the lack of sports and a surplus of shows featuring people screaming at each other. The near-universal sentiment … is that the content provider sidelined actual sports in favor of carnival barkers.”

Davis points out the flaw in ESPN’s shift in colorful terms:

“ESPN went from the worldwide leader in sports to yet another expensive network of dumb people yelling dumb things at other dumb people, all the while forgetting that the most popular entertainment of people yelling about sports stuff for several hours a day – sports talk radio – is free.”

There’s an additional factor in the mix that’s a likely culprit in ESPN’s tribulations – the mixing of sports and politics. That programming decision has turned out to be a great big lightning rod for the network – with more downside than upside consequences.

The question is, why did ESPN even go in that direction?

Most likely, ESPN execs saw the tough numbers on higher costs, subscriber losses and lower ratings, and decided that it needed a larger content pie to attract more consumers.

The reasoning goes, if some people like sports and others like politics, why not combine the two to attract a larger audience, thereby changing the trajectory of the figures?

But that reasoning flies in the face of how people consume political news. In the era of Obama and now Trump, political diehards gravitate to outlets that reinforce their own worldviews:  conservatives want news from conservatives; liberals want news from liberals.

MSNBC and the Fox News Channel have figured this out big-time.

But if you’re starting with a cross-partisan mass media audience for sports, as the original ESPN audience most certainly was, trying to combine that with politics means running the risk of losing one-half of your audience.

That’s what’s been happening with ESPN. Intertwining sports with coverage about bathrooms in North Carolina, transgender sports stars, gun control laws and proper national anthem etiquette only gets your numbers going in one direction (down).

The question for ESPN is how it plans to recalibrate and refocus its programming to truly defend its position as the worldwide leader in sports broadcasting. However it decides to position itself in terms of the delivery of its content – television, online, subscription, pay-per-view or other methods – it should refocus on covering live sports events.

Not sports talk … not debate … not politics or sociology, but the sports themselves.

At one time, not so long ago, sports were a safe refuge from politics and the news. ESPN would do itself – and its viewers – a favor if it sought to recapture that spirit.