I'd like to tell you everything I learned about Microsoft's latest research on consumer attention spans.

But I keep getting distracted, which is really ironic since I'm allegedly an attention Ninja — capable of "compartmentalizing tasks to control my attention."

Apparently the researchers failed to consider my fascination with things like squirrels jumping on the bird feeder right outside my window, the spec of dust I can see on the table across the room or my obsession to discover the name of the song I think I heard sitting at the bar yesterday. (It was World Cocktail Day, folks. I felt obligated to do my part.)

The good news is that my sagging attention is apparently the result of our digital lifestyle, not some form of contagious ADHD — which means I can now stop blaming several loved ones for my inability to concentrate.

At least that's what Microsoft seems to think.

What's the Question?

In separate studies conducted in Canada and the UK, Microsoft Advertising found digital lifestyles — including the rising use of multiple screens —are changing our attention spans. Consumers require different ad experiences depending on their attention style — and marketers and advertisers need to rethink the customer experiences they provide to align with this shift in audience behavior.

In Canada, Microsoft conducted an online survey of more than 2,000 people. They were asked to perform game-like tasks that measure different types of attention, such as looking for patterns in a series or spotting differences in a set of images. It also measured the brainwaves of more than 100 of the participants using electroencephalography (EEG) as they were doing tasks.

The conclusion: more digitally savvy consumers have high bursts of intense attention at the beginning of a task, but that attention falls over time. In contrast, less frequent digital users tend to have lower bursts of attention initially, but increased attention over a sustained period of time.

In the UK, Microsoft again surveyed 2,000 people. The Attention Spans study, developed for the advertising community and available for download, reveals that 86 per cent of consumers are multiscreening when watching TV, gaming or browsing the Internet.

There's no explanation why Microsoft failed to conduct similar research in the US. Perhaps we were just too distracted to participate, which, based on my own experience, is not as far fetched as it seems.

Sidetracked and Unfocused

The research was developed from Sohlberg and Mateer’s model of attention. Microsoft said it provides new insights for brands and advertisers, and can help them to develop ad experiences that serve their target audiences most effectively.

For example, 44 percent of all Canadians surveyed "really have to concentrate hard to stay focused on tasks at work/school." The percentage is even higher for early tech adopters (68 percent) and heavy social-media users as well as 18- to 24-year-olds (67 percent each).

In addition, 45 percent of Canadian respondents "get sidetracked from what they’re doing at work/school by unrelated thoughts or daydreams." Again, the rates are higher among early tech adopters (66 percent), heavy social-media users (65 percent) and 18- to 24-year-olds (61 percent).

A Ninja? Really?

The UK study, which was developed for the advertising community and published on Campaign this week, found 86 percent of people have one eye on another screen when watching TV, gaming or surfing the web. "As consumers shift their behavior to handle multiscreen environments, agencies too must shift their approach to audience engagement," noted Owen Sagness, UK General Manager for Microsoft Advertising and Online.

The UK study identifies three natural attention modes, which reflect consumers’ use of digital technology:

  1. Ninja: when consumers compartmentalize tasks so they can control their attention. Individual activities are allocated specific devices and usually work and play are kept completely separate
  2. Pragmatist: when consumers show some degree of compartmentalization but use attention skills to combine activities, rather than having rigid rules to organize their day
  3. Ambidextrous: when consumers regularly blend tasks together across devices to do household admin, work and social media activities at the same time

Which one are you? Well, you can play a game to test your own attention.

But here's all I can say. I spend a good part of my day flitting from one task to another, punctuating even the most routine activities with fits and starts and distractions of all kinds.

  • Where's the cat?
  • What's that noise?
  • How long does it take to drive from here to there?
  • Who ate all the cookies?
  • Let's look up a recipe for cookies.
  • Who posted what on Facebook?

I took the test. And I scored 270 out of 300, which earned me distinction as a Ninja. Woo hoo.

If I'm a Ninja, it's kind of depressing. It just means the odds of getting anyone's attention — especially someone who scores lower than me — are basically slim to none.

So pretend it’s World Cocktail Day again, and raise a glass to all those beleaguered advertisers and marketers. If they are trying to engage a population of people like me, they have a near impossible task.

Title image by Asa Aarons Smith/all rights reserved.