There is a great article on Poynteronline – The Myth of Short Attention Spans – describing research into reader behaviour.

The dramatic growth in available information on the web, through tools such as blogging, wikis and pod-/web-casting has generated lots of debate around the demand for our one limited resource – attention. Lots of effort by media and advertising companies is focused around grabbing and holding onto our attention. Linda Stone, formerly of Microsoft and Apple, coined the phrase continuous partial attention to describe how we constantly track what’s going on over the web.

The assumption has been that attention is scarce and more so online where it easy to click a link and move on somewhere else. Newspapers worry about this a lot. They assume that people are less likely to stick with reading their content online than when consuming the offline paper version.

Poynter’s study tips this assumption on its head. Their research shows how we tend to scan quickly through lots of information and tasks. But when something grabs our attention, we tend to focus on it and read the content thoroughly. And, cue the big surprise, we focus more (i.e. read more) when viewing online content than when reading it in on paper.

And, as so often happens when evidence is published, when you think about it the findings make sense. If I look at my newspaper reading habits, I rarely read an article thoroughly from end-to-end. I start off quite interested but often skip bits in the middle. When I click through to an article online, I tend to read the whole thing… and beyond, if there are links that take me to other interesting content. Perhaps it’s because there is such a wide variety of articles (i.e. the whole web) to choose from that when I do choose something it is likely to be highly relevant or interesting to me. Where as when I purchase a newspaper, I live in hope that it contains some articles that are highly relevant or interesting to me. It’s that Long Tail phenomenon again. The printed newspaper is a scarce resource, and has to hedge bets on what content will be interesting to its entire audience. The Internet isn’t bounded by physical constraints and can present you with exactly what you want… hecks, you can write it yourself if you can’t find it and publish instantly. It’s a completely different dynamic.

Interesting stuff. I highly recommend reading the article and its associated links – there is a great presentation covering the research and short video describing the results.

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