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An arms race for people’s attention

Jo Scard
An arms race for people’s attention

We were once excited by the democratic force of the online space. Free of editors, free from cost. Shifting power from media tycoon to online blogger.

Then came the rise of online curators. Cookies that follow you, social analytics that feed you and search engines that get you from A to B. They’ve become our second hand to navigate the  endless content, and in turn, like any new market need, they learnt to capitalise on it along the way.

Search engines and social media platforms experimented in ways to collate user data – in a bid for advertising. They experimented in ways to capture user attention – in a bid for market access. With push button notifications triggering hits of dopamine, not that dissimilar to the pokies, two thirds of us rely on social media for a portion of news, alongside our new addiction along the way.

“With push button notifications triggering hits of dopamine, not that dissimilar to the pokies, two thirds of us rely on social media for a portion of news”

Yes, online search and social curators have learnt to better understand us, pre-empt our needs and tailor our experience in ways that we only thought our best friends knew how. But it’s come at a price to say the least. There’s been countless discussions on the impact that bought influence and confirmation bias has had on social debate and the formation of public opinion.

In short its impact on democracy – contributing to the perplexed expressions of our pollsters at the Trump and Brexit ‘shocks’. And within this bigger discussion, we too form part of this game in hopes to cut through the noise, compete against other’s budgets and capture audience attention.

Will you ever afford the same insights or bought attention that Trump’s campaign managed. Or more realistically, will you have the funds and smarts available to keep building public support when you might be up against a corporate giant in your next advocacy campaign.

Will you risk losing your online followers by producing meaningful content that’s out-clicked by an attractive face. People’s attention span has dropped from 15 seconds on a page to 11 within the past three years. When you look at how people use their phone at the bus stop, or on the train, and unfortunately at the dinner table, you won’t be surprised to discover 90% of daily Facebook users now do so on their phone.

Each user passing multiple posts with the stroke of their finger. It’s a strict scan – and without doubt, whether your a social activist or purpose driven organisation, you too will have an audience and supporters susceptible to the lure of the clickbait meme.

To compete with this, we need to become better at meeting our audience’s interests at an emotional level. That means entertainment – whether a documentary with compelling information, or sitcom with laughs – we need to be producing it.

“We need to re-think the sob story. Today’s online audience has little tolerance for pain.”

We need to re-think the sob story. Today’s online audience has little tolerance for pain. The fact is, most people online are not looking for the hardship story – more often than not, they’re looking for  the cute and cuddly. Cat memes are among the most shareable content.

To win attention in today’s online world, not-for-profits, purpose-led companies and organisations need to learn how to hack the cat meme. Even the most serious humanitarian cause can use this approach to succeed. Learn from those doing it well, and trial and test until you hit the mark.

Sure, the internet may have spiralled into a corporate puppet show; fundamentally, algorithms are running the show, and doing so for profit. But this doesn’t mean we should give up. It just means we need to get smarter – keep up with the game, and you can succeed in winning attention.


Fifty Acres is a communications agency which has extensive experience working with the not-for-profit sector and giving strategic advice to purpose-driven organisations in an every-changing media landscape. Here, Jo Scard, Managing Director of Fifty Acres reflects on the arms race for our attention span. In the context of our theme ‘The Ethics of Exponential Tech’ it’s worthwhile for purpose-driven organisations to think deeply about the dramatic shifts occurring online, how they choose to respond to a fight for people’s attention and how they communicate for cut through.


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