Copywriting and the 8-Second Attention Span
There is a famous David Ogilvy quote that’s stuck with me ever since I first read it:
“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.”
Though Ogilvy wrote those words in the early ‘60s, they are still as relevant as ever. Albeit, for a bit of a different reason. In its original context, Ogilvy’s assertion is meant to illustrate the importance of writing a powerful headline that speaks the language of your intended audience. This, of course, still rings true. However, the need to capture attention with a strong headline also speaks to another challenge that copywriters today must overcome:
Shrinking attention spans.
According to a 2015 study conducted by Microsoft, the average American’s attention span is only 8 seconds—which is one second less than a goldfish. In the year 2000, the average was 12.
This comes as little surprise given the always connected, everything-at-your-fingertips world we now live in. “The problem is we have an infinite number of options to choose from,” says Shaun Buck, CEO of The Newsletter Pro. “Back when TV first came out, people had just a handful of channels to watch. If you didn’t like what was on, you had two additional choices. Now, you have 200 choices…if I have options and you bore me, it is easy to simply change the channel.”
Think about it. How many times have you stopped to look at your phone since you started reading this? How many times were you tempted to “change the channel” and see what’s new in your Instagram feed? Or Facebook? Or Twitter? If you made it this far, I’d say you deserve a pat on the back.
Witty comments aside, brands know that they only have a sliver of time to get their message across, and as a result, we copywriters are given smaller and smaller word counts in which to squeeze our big ideas.
While it’s easy to get discouraged by this, there’s no need to hit the panic button just yet. Yes, word counts have become an unfortunate necessity, but that may actually be a good thing.
“Read anything you ever wrote before you properly understood what it is to be a copywriter, and I promise you will be able to take several words out of virtually every piece,” writes Andrew Boulton in his article for The Drum. “What’s more, you’ll see quite starkly that the ideas you express in 20 words lack the force and clarity of anything you can communicate in 10.”
The point is that we need to adapt. Mastering the art of modern copywriting means finding new and creative ways to say more with fewer words. And given that we now only have an 8-second window to capture and hold a reader’s attention, headlines need to work even harder than ever.
If Ogilvy were alive today, he may even argue that once you’ve written your headline, you’ve actually spent 90 cents of your dollar. But if that extra bit of effort is what it takes to get your body copy read, then I’d say that’s 90 cents well spent.