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Spicy Ideas: Hey, You! Pay Attention!—Three Reasons Why We Ignore Video

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I have been watching a movie for 3 days now. The one lonely Hulu Firefox tab is surrounded by Gmail, Pandora, UPS tracking, Kayak, and half-read articles. Marty Feldman’s 1977 classic The Last Remake of Beau Geste is a Mel Brooks-style comedy featuring short scenes mixed with sight gags and sophomoric humor, held loosely together by a classic fish-out-of-water story. This style is a mirror of current consumer attitudes. Make me laugh, make it snappy, and get out of the way. But why can’t I find 84 minutes of uninterrupted time?

Distractions and short attention spans are the culprits for ignoring advertisements, but it gets even scarier. I find myself disregarding content just as often as ads. Now that I have your full attention (until your Twitter/ email/text/Facebook beeps at you), let’s look at three reasons why consumers are ignoring video.

I Have the Power!
He-Man jokes aside, consumers do have the power. As video has migrated from the TV and the theater to computers, "viewers" have become "users." What has been a passive, two-button experience (on-off and change the channel) is now a fully engaged, infinite-button experience. If I want to have multiple windows open, chat with several friends, do some work, and watch your video at the same time, then I have the power (even if I don’t reside in Castle Grayskull). Most traditional broadcast content was not designed to be consumed online. That’s why we are seeing the rise of webisodes, podcasts, and more-interactive content.

Consumers want to experience their stories in a radically different way. The success of your content rests solely on whether or not your audience wants to engage with it. That should scare you or excite the pants off of you.

Crushed by Content
I have watched video via RSS, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Seesmic, blip.tv, iTunes, email, Hulu, Viddler, Vimeo, and Flickr ... all today. It’s no wonder consumers are not paying attention. I definitely fall on the early adopter side. But according to Nielsen, 130 million U.S. web users watched 9.6 billion streams in March 2009. And emails, blog comments, user reviews, links, sharing, embedding, etc., are all byproducts of online video. The "users" are creating an infinite amount of distractions to go with their stories. In some cases, they are creating their own video shows, podcasts, video blogs, and all the supporting content. (Search Google for "He-Man fan fiction"; it’s amazing.)

As more "viewers" become "users," their already-full lives expand even more. More conversations with a global audience on a wider base of networks means less average interaction time. All of this information can lead to overload, burnout, and an even shorter attention span for new content or ads. The current reaction in advertising is to interrupt more often and with bigger, bolder content. Times Square in New York City is a great example of what ad one-upmanship can create. Only time will tell how consumers deal with being crushed by content. But this is what we wanted, right?

Blinded by Science
The most interesting reason that consumers are not paying attention is a physiological one. It’s probably a self-defense mechanism to keep us from buying too many "free" credit reports or overdosing on boring news anchors. But eye-tracking research shows that we are ignoring banner ads and that we quickly lose interest in broadcast-style videos. Jakob Nielsen of useit.com has published many findings on what people focus on when they watch online video. Nielsen found that "users are easily distracted when watching video on websites, especially when the video shows a talking head and is optimized for broadcast rather than online viewing." During a 24-second video clip, people looked at content off the screen as much or more than the video. In the heat-map image of where people looked during the video, there is a red hot spot over the "close window" button. Maybe our brains are trying to tell us to relax.

What Do We Do Now?
One caveat is that if someone wants content bad enough, he or she will endure ads, find a torrent, or do whatever is necessary to watch a favorite show. Ask a rabid Lost fan to miss an episode and see how well that goes over. So how do we get consumers to pay attention? Simple: Give them what they want. We have more choices now than ever before. So find your target audience, ask them what they want, and then listen to what they say.

Now back to Marty Feldman … ring, ring, beep, beep … sigh … maybe tomorrow.

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