Human attention spans are getting shorter, says almost everybody. So why are people spending more and more time with long-form content? 

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2, the 2nd highest-grossing movie of the year so far, clocks in at 2:21 hours.

We’ve all heard the cliches, too often presented as “facts”: humans can only absorb content in short bursts, vying for attention on your Facebook news feed. Our attention spans are now at the same level as the poor, maligned goldfish. We are told by experts at marketing conferences that the “ideal” length for video content is 30 seconds because “Millennials” can’t handle anything longer than a minute or so. Even the President of the United States now sums up complex foreign policy in less than 140 characters. (Sad!)

For everyone who accepts all of this at face value, step back for a minute and think again. If we really had the attention span of a goldfish, would any one of us be able to leave a room? Wouldn’t we forget how we got there or where the door was or how a doorknob worked? Or for that matter, how could humans drive a car, fly a plane or file a tax return? Are we really so unfocused or easily distracted?

Think of your own content consumption as a consumer. How much time are you willing to spend with a movie or your favorite TV show?

The second most popular film of 2017 (so far), Guardians of the Galaxy, Volume 2, which made over USD 800 million at the box office, has a running time of 141 minutes. The #1 movie with over a billion dollars, Beauty and the Beast, clocks in at two hours and nine minutes. Arguably the hottest show on television today, Game of Thrones, is already running at around 67 hours! (Thereabouts, anyways. I can’t remember how many two-hour episodes there were.) And there’s still one more season to go!

It may surprise you to learn that, according to research by video technology company Ooyala, long-form video is now the most popular form of content consumed online. Long-form content (defined as greater than 20 minutes in length) now represents the majority of time spent watching video across all screen sizes: desktop, mobile, tablet and connected TVs.

The magical formula that dictates your video must only be 90-120 seconds  is a myth propagated by companies who want to sell you 90-120 sec videos (and the platforms that carry them).  I was recently reminded of how this misconception is propagated when I found myself quoted (out of context) in an article that argues short-form video is the “next big thing.”

It’s not true that people today will only watch short videos. What most consumers are unwilling to watch for longer than a couple of minutes is bad content: content that’s poorly conceived, with a thinly-veiled yet obvious commercial message, designed to interrupt you as you’re trying to get to the actual content you wanted to see in the first place.

The fact is that if the content is good, as the entertain industry demonstrates, consumers are willing to watch for hours and hours non-stop. The challenge for brands is how to develop content that is interesting enough, offers true value and features characters and a narrative that compels the viewer to follow all the way to the end.

If your brand has an amazing story to tell, breaking the 90-second video mold is the way to stand out. VISA’s delightful Thai-language #TokyoUnexpected mini movie clocks in at nearly 15 minutes and has already over 10 million views on Facebook (mostly organic).

Even a B2B player like industry giant GE regularly shares its many technical innovations through a series of videos, from cool things they do with drone technology to power plants, each clocking in at over five minutes each.

That’s not to say short-form content doesn’t have its place. Marketers need to think of short videos in the way that Hollywood uses trailers or preview clips: easy entry points leading to the main event. Or how comedians like John Oliver have used short clips to build a YouTube audience as large as his HBO audience. The problem is that many marketers confuse one medium with the other, treating the short form route as if it was the main content. And just as Hollywood has learned to do, marketers must also learn to convey a brand story with a Transmedia mindset, across multiple platforms and formats.

Whatever approach you decide, make sure to avoid that other great video content myth: that the content you produce, in order to be considered successful, has to go “viral.”

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